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Ann Rita: Fishing has always been in her life

Stonington — Ann Rita's Town Dock office is a sort of shrine to the town's fishing fleet.

Models of several boats in the fleet sit in glass cases, and framed black-and-white photos of boats, their crews and Blessing of the Fleet celebrations through the years hang on the walls.

The longtime bookkeeper and administrator for the Southern New England Fishermen and Lobstermen's Association grew up in the borough in a family that had fished for generations.

"We grew up with it. It means something to us," she said about the industry.

But she rarely ventured down to the dock as a child.

"It wasn't a place for girls. It was a guy thing down here," she recalled one recent afternoon as she sat in her office, where the windows overlook the south pier of the dock and offer a clear view of boats returning home.

She has fond memories of growing up in the borough in the 1950s and '60s, when the fleet was at its height with as many as 50 draggers and many lobster boats.

"You couldn't find a better place to live," she said. "Everything you wanted, you could find here."

Locals shopped at Camacho's grocery store, Roland's market, Keane's News Office and Segal's clothing store, among the many small shops.

The many fishing families with Portuguese surnames such as Roderick, Madeira, Henry and Pont lived in the village, and their children, like Rita, attended the borough school.

"It was the best place to grow up. We all knew everybody," she said. "Your parents didn't worry about where you were. And when the 7 o'clock whistle blew, you had to go home." 

Almost all of those families moved, mostly to Pawcatuck, when real estate prices rose over the past several decades and wealthy New Yorkers began buying up homes to renovate.

Rita, who lives today in Pawcatuck, said she doesn't walk around the village anymore.

"I have good memories of the borough. But they're not there now. I don't know anybody," she said. "I need to keep the memory of what it was." 

Fishing, however, could be a dangerous way to make a living.

Rita's husband, John, a longtime Town Dock fisherman before he retired, had his boat catch fire and was hit by lightning. On one trip, he suffered a fractured skull. She knew many of the local fishermen who died at sea and are listed on a memorial at the dock.

"As a fisherman's wife, you get to the point where you have to put that fear aside. You can't stress out about the trips. I know he knows his job. Most of these guys know their job," she said.

Having spent all her life around fishermen and lobstermen, Rita understands the allure of the job. "It's peaceful out there. You do your job. You do your work. You don't have anyone looking over you saying, 'Do this, or 'do that.'"

Even after fishermen like her husband retire, she said they still come down to the dock almost every day.

"That's their life," she said. "It doesn't leave you."

j.wojtas@theday.com

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