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Among her many community efforts, Mike Neville runs the Artist of the Month program at the Estuary Council of Seniors. She’s shown here with the work of current Artist of the Month Dominic Massa. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
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Mike Neville is a well-known presence at the Estuary Council of Seniors, where she not only participates in exercise classes and other activities, but oversees the Artist of the Month program, helps to organize the annual craft fair, and has served on its Board of Directors and Finance Committee. She’s also a quilter, donating her time, skills, and creations to brighten up other people’s lives, whether through Quilts of Valor or other causes.
And as people get to know her, there’s that question that often comes up: How did Mike get her name?
“I was the first girl after five boys,” she says. “And my father thought that was a good name for me. Mike. So it stuck.”
Although the name on her birth certificate is Caroline, she’s been called Mike for as long as she can remember.
When she started kindergarten in the late 1930s, “I’d never been called anything but Mike,” she remembers. “And they’re looking at me and they’re saying ‘Caroline.’
“I’m saying, ‘Why are they looking at me? That’s not my name.’ I wasn’t old enough to know the difference at that point, you see,” she says.
Asked if her father had a good sense of humor, Mike says, “No, he didn’t, actually. He didn’t.” And she laughs.
Growing Up During the Depression
Mike was the baby of the family until her sister, about 2 ½ years her junior, was born. The family lived in Larchmont, in Westchester County, New York, and growing up during the Depression, Mike says, they had their hardships and good times, too.
“We watched our two older brothers go off to war,” Mike says.
One of her brothers died before Mike was born.
“It was ‘41 and ‘42 when they both left high school and enlisted. My father spent a lot of time working for the Army in Alaska on the highway. He was an architect...So we had two of the boys home and my sister and I.
“It wasn’t easy,” she continues. “It was hard on my mom. She had all the worry of all the kids and the house...and there was not money for much food. So you had a lot of oatmeal...and so did everybody else. You had to have blackout curtains, which you had to put up every night. But you weren’t the only ones. Everyone was doing the same thing, so you didn’t feel poor. You just felt that you had something else for dinner that was not as much as you’d like but it was okay. You got through it.
“I think the worst thing was making butter out of oleo [margarine],” she says. “Oleo came in a block. And these little yellow tabs [of dye] came with it and you squeezed” the dye into the margarine and mixed them together to color the margarine yellow.
“Oh, it was foul,” Mike says, laughing. “It was the worst thing I’d ever tasted. It was awful.
“But other than that, we didn’t feel like we were deprived of anything,” she continues. “We had friends and we all were in the same boat. So we felt like we were doing quite well. I’m sure my mother had a tough time, dealing with it all. But the boys were a big help.”
Their mother “was a wonderful, wonderful woman. In high school, when my friends had problems, they used to come to her. She was a special gal.”
The family lived on “a dead-end street with a marsh behind us, with a little river that came through there—a creek,” she says. The kids spent their time “[h]unking around, we called it: Let’s go out and hunk around in the marsh. Just kid stuff.”
A New Life in Saybrook
Many years later, when Mike’s husband, Gene, retired from his job in sales at IBM, they decided to move to Old Saybrook, where her brother lived. In 1990, they bought a house on the marsh.
“It was a nice ranch, on one floor—easy on the knees,” she says. “And [we] really just came and loved it. Lots of birds on the marsh. I love the birds. I’m a bird watcher.
“We couldn’t afford to live on the water to begin with,” Mike explains. “But I really preferred the marsh because there’s more activity. And it changes every day, the colors of the marsh, it just changes. And the birds now are beginning to leave and egrets [are] grouping up in big groups and getting ready to go south. I’m going to miss them when they go.”
Mike, who has retired from nursing, had begun volunteering back in Larchmont.
“I did a lot of blood pressure screenings in New York for the Will Rogers Institute, which was supported by the entertainment industry,” she says.
“One of the fun things we did was” take the blood pressure of the entire cast of the musical 42nd Street, which had moved from one theater to another. The cast had to rehearse the show in the new theater.
“We’d run out in front and watch them rehearse and run back and go to work,” she says. “Fun things like that, we did.”
After moving to Old Saybrook, Mike saw that a group at their church, St. John, was raffling off a quilt to raise money for charity.
“I asked, ‘Oh, do you need any more quilters?’” she says. “Which is wonderful, because it got you involved with more people...I got to meet a lot of gals, which was great for me. Men don’t need as much of that, but women need a lot of connections, don’t they?”
Through that group, which branched out and formed other groups, Mike has made tiny quilts for babies in the neo-natal intensive care unit at Hartford Hospital, slightly larger quilts for older children in the hospital, and quilts for children who are wards of the state. All the quilts are gifts—the children get to keep them.
And of course, there’s Quilts of Valor (QOV), an organization that presents handmade quilts to veterans to honor their service.
“To me, it was important to give back,” she says about becoming involved with QOV. “With my family and all the other veterans who had given so much. It was our way to say thank you. And doing something that we enjoy doing to begin with and they enjoyed having. It’s a give back and I just think it’s so important. I’ve been lucky in life.
“We have a lot of men who [served in] Vietnam, especially, who said they were never thanked when they came back and they were treated terribly,” she continues. “A couple of them said, ‘You’re the only people who have ever said thank you to us.’
“It’s one of those things I’m certainly glad I got involved in,” she says. “[I]t’s something that I enjoy doing and I love making something that somebody else gets pleasure out of.”
Mike was able to have a quilt presented to her brother.
“He died two years ago at Christmas, just before Christmas. Just in time, I was able to give him his Quilt of Valor, three weeks before he died, which was just neat. He would lie there on the bed with it, he’d pat it, and he’d say, ‘I was presented with this.’”
At the Estuary
For many years, Mike has helped organize the annual craft fair at the Estuary Council of Seniors, held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. She’s now finding she has to tone her participation down a bit.
“It’s a long day and it’s a lot of standing,” she explains. “And I find the legs are not that good anymore and I can’t stand all day anymore. So I will not be doing as much. But I love all the vendors, which we’ve known for a long time, so I will definitely be involved, but not as much as I have been.
“I’m at the point in my life where things are wearing out. I’m slowing down,” she says.
But she carries on with her Artist of the Month program, which she’s been heading for eight years now.
“We have some wonderful artists around,” she says. “There’s all kinds of talent.”
Nearly all of 2020 is already booked.
“I don’t interview...I don’t preview,” she explains. “Somebody will come in—we’ll have an artist reception the second Friday of the month. Someone will say, Oh, I’m an artist.
“‘Oh, really?’” Mike says. “‘What do you do? Would you like to be artist of the month?’ And I sign up people.
“The nice thing about this is there’s no pressure here. Especially some of the new artists—they don’t want to hang [their work] because they don’t think their stuff is good enough. Well, everybody’s stuff is good enough.”
The work is all offered for sale. One artist, Mike says, set prices on her work that were very low.
“I said, ‘You know you’re giving this away. This is very inexpensive.’ And she said, ‘I know, but I’d rather have somebody buy it than have it sit under my bed.’”
That artist sold nine paintings.
Another artist of the month was Ted Pigeon, a beloved volunteer at the Estuary for 30 years, who died recently at 91. Ted had taken a watercolor class there and discovered a new talent.
“He sold his lighthouse” painting, Mike said. “Well, he was so surprised that anybody would buy his work. He sold quite a few of them. Everybody loved one of them—they all wanted prints of it. He felt so good that somebody liked his work.”
A Peaceful Life
Having lost her husband seven years ago, Mike continues to live in their Old Saybrook home. Their three children are not too far away and she has eight grandchildren—and her birds.
“We’ve got lots of egrets” this year, she says. “We’ve got little blue herons, great blue herons, lots of different kinds.
“There’s an island behind us, about half a mile [away] where the ospreys all hang out and they come and sit out there and they eat their fish and the sun shines on them. They’ve been very active this year. There’s four of them that have been in and out and in and out, pushing each other around and squawking.
“I sit on the marsh in the screened porch and just watch them.”
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