Column: An appreciation of one Otis Grey Pike

01/25/2014 8:00 AM |
PIKE FAMILY COURTESY PHOTO | A recent photo of Otis Pike playing the ukulele at a family party.

PIKE FAMILY COURTESY PHOTO | A recent photo of Otis Pike playing a banjo at a family party.

The bow tie. That’s the first thing I noticed about Otis Pike: the bow tie.

At first, I thought it was simply a fashion statement. But soon I came to realize it marked the man as an iconoclast, a curmudgeon, someone willing to swim against the tide, an independent Democrat in a heavily Republican congressional district on far eastern Long Island.

The year was 1971 and I was, most improbably, editor of the now-defunct and long-forgotten Hampton Bays (L.I.) News. Barely three years out of college, I got the job after a five-minute interview largely because, unbeknownst to me, the owner was in the process of selling the business and just needed somebody, anybody, to fill the editor’s chair until the new owner took over.

I’d had a little real-world experience as a journalist, and even less experience as an assistant press secretary to an unsuccessful candidate for governor of Pennsylvania. And I suppose it was the latter assignment that gave me the bright idea to interview our congressman on the job in Washington.

The details are somewhat fuzzy now, some 43 years later, but the thing I remember most about the assignment is that a U.S. congressman took an entire day out of his schedule to show a 20-something journalist around his office, the House of Representatives and Capitol Hill.

Congressman Pike could not have been more gracious or more engaging and the ensuing profile in the Hampton Bays paper (and its sister weeklies in Westhampton and Southampton) probably could not have been more laudatory (or, probably, more fawning). Otis Pike had that special knack for engaging people, eye to eye, person to person, which likely explains how he managed to survive nine terms in the House in an overwhelmingly Republican district.

Some eight years later, after he retired from Congress and began writing a syndicated column for Newhouse Newspapers, I tried to convince him to write a column for his hometown newspaper, The News-Review of Riverhead, which I had recently acquired with my wife and her brother. He declined, saying he’d prefer to opine on national and international issues in papers like Newsday. And he did so, often brilliantly, for another 20 years.

An aside: I had not really thought about it until this week, when news of Otis Pike’s passing at age 92 reached me, but that day in Washington may have had a subtle but significant impact on my life. And that’s because later that same year, 1971, I returned to Capitol Hill as a press secretary to a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. Otis Pike had nothing to do with my being offered the job, but that eventful day with him in Washington may well have influenced my decision to accept it.

It was during those first years with The News-Review that I got to know more about Otis Pike, the man, through his son Rob Pike, who eventually became a Riverhead Town councilman and a good friend. Otis Pike, the man who liked nothing more than to raft up his boat with his friends’ boats at Great Salt Pond on Block Island. Otis Pike, the man who returned to Riverhead from time to time to play ukulele and banjo with the Block Island Chamber Music Society or timpani with Riverhead’s No Doubt World Famous Monday Night Band — which, not coincidentally, is directed today by John Eyre, husband of Otis Pike’s daughter, Lois Pike Eyre.

Sadly, Rob Pike precdeceased his father in 2010. They are survived by, among others, Rob’s 6-year-old son, who is named after his paternal grandfather and still lives in Riverhead with his mother and sister. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but on this somber occasion I choose to imagine the day when young Otis Pike dons a bow tie to honor the memory of his late grandfather, the congressman.

tgustavson@timesreview.com