The End Is The Beginning With Joe Gaviola

Some houses are hard to find. Maybe they’re hidden away down a side street, or nestled among twisting and turning roads, far out of site. Joe Gaviola’s house is hard to miss. “Last house in New York,” he says with a laugh. “If you’re in the water, you’ve gone too far.” And while he says this in jest, he’s not too far off. Joe lives in the Montauk Point Lighthouse. He is the lighthouse keeper.

Commissioned in 1792 by George Washington, the Montauk Point Lighthouse is an iconic structure. Standing proudly on the coast, it has been a guiding light to mariners, fishermen and travelers since its completion in 1796. It is the fourth-oldest working lighthouse in the nation, and one of 12 lighthouses in America to be honored with the National Historic Landmark designation, which it received in 2012. And for Joe Gaviola, it’s home.

Now, we know what you’re thinking—lighthouse keepers are real? Why yes, as a matter of fact, they are. And while the job title itself sounds as outdated as steam train engineer or fax machine salesperson, it’s an incredibly important role, and one that Joe does with pride.

When you think of a lighthouse keeper, you probably don’t think of Joe Gaviola. He’s not a burly old man with a scruffy beard, wind-blown hair and a fisherman’s hat, nor is he some recluse, spying on the world from a parted window shade. He’s a handsome guy, with a friendly smile and a good handshake. He’s an athlete—an avid runner, swimmer, cyclist and paddleboarder. He’s a seasoned businessman, a hell of a fisherman. And, he’s a proud Montauk local.

“I first came to Montauk in 1967 when I was 12 years old. To me, it was a different part of the world—very rural and rugged, with beautiful, clean beaches. And the fishing was amazing. I fell in love with Montauk from the very beginning,” Joe said. “We all loved to fish, especially my dad. At first we stayed in a little cottage, and then my dad decided to buy a 21-foot Boston Whaler. And over time we got bigger and bigger boats and spent more and more time out here. Finally, my parents decided, ‘Let's build a summer house,’ and we did.”

Joe loved Montauk. He loved the pristine beaches, the fresh sea breeze and the vast, open expanses of the Atlantic Ocean. But more than anything, he loved to fish. “The fishing scene when I was a teenager was absolutely amazing. I remember catching everything from cod, to mako sharks, to swordfish and white marlin—and I'd never caught these fish before. There were so many new experiences,” he says with a look of joy in his eyes. “I started working on charter boats, and it was serious business. For these fishermen, this was their livelihood. So, as a mate, there's a lot of pressure on you, and as a captain, a lot of pressure to produce and bring food back for your family. Montauk is fishing, and fishing is Montauk.”

But, like most youthful endeavors, Joe eventually left the docks and made his way to college, and then to the corporate world. You see, Joe had a plan. The son of a successful businessman, Joe was going to follow in his father’s footsteps—wear a tie, work in Manhattan, find purpose through success. He would become, as Tom Wolfe famously described, a Master Of The Universe. However, to paraphrase the philosopher Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

When she was an infant, Joe’s daughter got seriously ill. Looking for a quiet place where he could focus on his family and her recovery, he left the hustle and bustle of Manhattan and headed for the coastal refuge of Montauk. Sand, sun and fresh sea air have been curing people for centuries, he figured he might as well give it a try. He never looked back.

“In 1987 I came out to Montauk for good; I opened up a group of local businesses and really dove into the community,” he said as we climbed the steps to the top of the light. “It was a big change coming from the corporate world to this amazing community. It was a wonderful life for my family, and myself. The friendships that we've developed out here are lifelong. The enjoyment we've shared here—the amazing beaches, the boating, the fishing. I’ve never regretted it.”

A six month stay turned into a year. One small business opportunity turned into two, then three. His daughter got better, and he had another. His children grew up and went to school, he became involved in the community, and the historical society. Before he knew it, Joe was as much a part of the town as the barnacles that cover the pilings at the commercial fishing pier, or the ever-present seagulls on the prowl for a bite to eat. And like so many mariners before him, he was drawn to the shining beacon of the Montauk Point Lighthouse.

“I started fishing underneath the Montauk Point Lighthouse with my father in the late '60s. It's something all of us have always admired,” Joe said. “But the Coast Guard had it and the Historical Society wasn’t allowed on the property. Then the Coast Guard started electrifying lighthouses across the country. They were reducing maintenance and staffing—they were going to board up the lighthouse and leave. And the Montauk Historical Society, to their betterment to this day, stepped up and said, ‘We would like to lease it.’ So, the federal government said, ‘Okay, we'll take a chance on you.’ They gave us the lease to the property. I think the first day of business we had a cigar box collecting entry fees, and we took in $9. But we gradually built up to the multimillion dollar enterprise the lighthouse is today.”

“So, when we took over the lighthouse, we needed a keeper,” Joe said as we stood in the light’s glass beacon, taking in the 360-degree views of Montauk and the Atlantic.

“There had always been a keeper in the lighthouse since 1796. There was a lady, Marge, who worked at the Post Office, and she was the keeper for about 31 years. Then about five years ago, I got a rumbling that Marge was thinking of leaving and going to Maine. I've personally been on the lighthouse board for almost 25 years now, and I’ve committed thousands of hours to it. It’s a labor of love for me. And at that point in life, my daughters were married, I had gotten divorced, and I said to the board ‘I would like to move in there. I love this place. It would be a blessing to be able to live there.’ So, we did some restoration of the residence, and I feel honored every day to wake up on the property. Like I said, there’s been a keeper since 1796. I'll be here for a little slice in time. And it'll be the time of my life.”

As we made our way down from the beacon room, Joe opened the doors to the catwalk and, carefully, we stepped out into the fresh ocean breeze, walked to the far side of the light, and stood quietly, looking out. “This is my favorite place at the Montauk Point Lighthouse, right up at the top,” he said, looking in his natural element. “And I especially like when there's a hurricane swell. When the hurricanes are offshore, you see these perfect linear waves coming at you that have originated thousands of miles out in the middle of the Atlantic. They're rhythmic, beautiful. They come right at you and split and say goodbye to each other on Montauk Point. To my right they go to New Jersey, to my left they go to Connecticut. And I just find that fascinating, meditative. Almost hypnotic in a way.”

As we stood there—the cool lavender sky reflecting the last gasps of sunlight; the strong breeze blowing fresh and crisp—we couldn’t help but be a bit jealous of Joe and his little slice of the Good Life. We’ll certainly be back to pay another visit. And we know he’ll leave the light on.

To plan your own visit to the Montauk Point Lighthouse, visit montaukhistoricalsociety.org.