A Montauk philanthropist reaches out to her community

A Walk Down Memory Lane With Alice Houseknecht

“In the 1950s, my dad was a New York City firefighter. He wasn’t a fisherman or a hunter but he loved to explore and go to new areas,” explained Alice Houseknecht, the former proprietor of East Deck Motel in Montauk. “When my dad came to Montauk for the first time and found Hither Hills, he fell in love with Montauk. He purchased a secondhand army tent and army cots and brought all of us out here. We would spend a couple of weeks at Hither Hills camping with the ice-cold showers, barbecues, and square dances.”

One of nine children of Alice and George Watson, Houseknecht recalled, “We lived on Staten Island and it would take us the better part of a day to get to Montauk. There was no Southern State Parkway or Long Island Expressway or Sunrise Highway. It was just Route 25A. From Staten Island you had to take a ferry over to Brooklyn because there was no Verrazzano Bridge at that time. We’d be piled in the car and would constantly be asking, ‘Are we there yet?’”

“It was the simple times; swimming in the ocean, playing on the playground which just had a few swings and a couple of slides and the square dances on Saturday nights that hold some of my favorite memories as a child. I fell in love when I was five years old at the first square dance I ever went to. I fell in love with Tommy Buckles. I still remember his name, but I never saw him again. I guess it was one of those one-night flings,” she said with a hearty laugh.

“For several years, we continued to come out as a family and would camp at Hither Hills until, in 1957, my grandfather built a little summer bungalow down in the harbor area. We would share it with our cousins. My father brought the army cots and we lined them up in the living room of the little cottage. For a child, it was more fun than you could imagine. We knew the next day we would be going down to the beach and then down to the harbor to wait for the fishing boats to come in. Often you could buy a big cod fish for a dollar or two and bring it home and have enough food to feed your entire family,” Houseknecht said. “Montauk holds a lot of near and dear memories for me.”

With a smile, Houseknecht recalls when she was 10 years old and her family was selected to be on the popular TV show “Beat the Clock.” “My father practiced every night. He did most of the games and answered the questions. We won a whole bunch of stuff. We won a car, cases of food. It was fantastic!”

“When I was older and in high school, I would still come to Montauk with my family and I would get a job. It was easy to find work. I started off working in the kitchen at the Shagwong Restaurant as a dessert girl. It was perfect because I could save a lot of money and when I went back I’d have money to buy my school uniforms and still have some spending money throughout the school year. I did this throughout high school and college and then for a while after I graduated from college. I had studied to be a teacher but there was a surplus of teachers and there were no teaching jobs,” Houseknecht explained. She graduated in 1974 from Hunter College in Manhattan.

“Without a teaching job, I went to work at my brother’s restaurant, The Dock, and then applied to TWA as a flight attendant,” she said. “I was sent for training and graduated from the academy in 1975.” Houseknecht flew domestically usually from John F. Kennedy International Airport. During one of her visits to Montauk in 1976, she met her husband Steve. A Montauk native, his father had been a corporal in the U.S. Army and was stationed at Camp Hero in 1946. Taken by Montauk’s beauty, he remained there and started his own building company in 1952. He built the first motel in Montauk, The Maisonettes.

“Steve’s grandparents, Sam and Bea Cox owned and operated the East Deck Motel. As Steve’s grandparents grew older, they relied upon him to keep up with the motel’s maintenance and hospitality.”

“On my days off from TWA,” Houseknecht explained, “I would be involved with the motel. It was just like working with the airlines. It was like an airplane without wings,” she said with a smile. “It’s the exact same thing. There are customers and they need things. It was just hospitality, and it just came so naturally to me. My husband would deal with the maintenance and I would deal with the customers, and it worked out.”

However, Houseknecht revisited her calling to be a teacher, and studied for her master’s degree at Southampton College. Just before completing the program, she was hired by Montauk School as a first-grade teacher. She taught at Montauk for 10 years and recalls, “First graders are really delightful because they want to please and they want you to love them and they love you in return. They’re just so innocent. I loved teaching, but my husband died and after he passed away I was doing both; teaching and taking care of the East Deck. I had to make a difficult decision. Should I give up teaching or give up the family business?”

With new and different marketing ideas, Houseknecht said she went into the motel business “full throttle.” She brought new life to the East Deck and attracted a more upscale clientele to the motel. But when Hurricane Sandy hit Long Island, the motel sustained a large amount of damage. In 2013, she sold the motel and set up her own 501 (C) (3), The Alice and Jaclyn Houseknecht Foundation.

A philanthropist at heart, Houseknecht now devotes her time to helping others. She is the director of the Montauk Food Pantry and works with organizations like The Carter Center and The Family Service League. Her foundation supports the Montauk Historical Society, Music for Montauk, the Montauk Village Association, the Montauk Playhouse Community Center, Eleanor Whitmore Early Childhood Center, The Retreat, Southampton Hospital, East End Hospice, Suicide
Prevention, and several other local organizations.

valerie@indyeastend.com