Meet Kathryn Roessel: New SSA Governor Brings Law to Post

By JULIA WELLS

Her name is Kathryn but she goes by Cassie. She is 47 but looks 29. She wears traditional Vineyard attire: jeans, windbreaker and a silver scallop-shell necklace. She grew up in Pittsford, N.Y., and her speech has the flattened O's that are uniquely associated with upstate New York in general and Rochester in particular. She has a Cairn terrier named Tugboat.

On this day she is late for a newspaper interview because Tugboat rolled in something that smelled delicious to dogs but awful to humans, and had to be taken home for an emergency bath.

"The first thing that you should know about me is that I am not a politician," she laughs. Then quickly turning serious, she adds: "But that doesn't mean I am not up to this job. And I think it is very important for people to do public service."

Meet Kathryn A. Roessel, a Tisbury resident and retired attorney who was appointed by the Dukes County Commission last week to be the new Steamship Authority governor for the Vineyard.

In a conversation with the Gazette this week, Ms. Roessel talked about her life and her career - up to and not including her impending role as a local politician.

Raised in Pittsford, she was educated in public schools and later attended New York University, where she studied English and journalism. In college she got a job at the university radio station, but she gravitated toward the music side instead of the news side, taking a job as a disc jockey.

It was a small foreshadowing of a career to come.

After college Ms. Roessel did some real-life work in the music business, beginning with a job working for a salsa promoter named Ralph Mercado. She later went to work for Warner Brothers, all the while studying for the LSATs. In 1977 she entered New York Law School.

"I loved it - I am probably the only person you will ever meet who you will hear say that they enjoyed law school," she says. "But the truth is that I was a mediocre student in high school and in college, and for me law school ended up being about discovering my intellectual potential for the first time."

After law school, Cassie Roessel went to work for the city of New York, first working for the city's corporation counsel and then working in the administrative law division, trying cases and defending police and firefighters in personal injury cases.

After a couple of years she had saved some money and decided to take some time off. She went backpacking in Southeast Asia, crewed on a sailboat to New Zealand and traveled into Tibet just after the border was opened to individual travelers.

Returning to New York, a series of personal contacts and coincidences led to a new career as an entertainment lawyer.

She worked first for Marshall, Morris, Wattenburg and Platt, drafting record deals and hammering out contracts and merchandising deals for musicians. Her clients included Whitney Houston, Judy Collins, Bobby McFerrin and Gene Simmons of the band Kiss. Later she went out on her own and Gene Simmons went with her. She also later represented Barry Manilow.

"I felt I had a job to which I was perfectly suited," she recalls. "Entertainment lawyers act very much like agents. I was able to use my people skills and I love rock music, so I could get excited about the music."

But by 1996 the music industry had changed dramatically. Many of Ms. Roessel's clients were rap artists instead of rock artists, but she said it wasn't just the music that changed, it was the whole industry. The record industry had been gobbled up by big conglomerates, and was just that - an industry - and no longer a nurturing ground for maturing musicians.

"It was much less freewheeling and more corporate. By the late 1990s there were a lot of people owning record companies who were not what we called record men. They were not music lovers," she says.

She also cites a single statistic: 90 per cent of all records are a financial failure.

"Suddenly the companies would not put any money into artist development. And it's very rare for an artist to make any money at age 19 when he makes his first record," she says.

She cites Randy Newman as the clearest example, telling the story of Mo Austin, president of Warner Brothers, who admired Newman's music and carried him for years. "Then one day as a joke Newman wrote Short People, and it was a top-chart hit. Today Newman is a mature musician. He's a national treasure," Ms. Roessel says. "But what if Mo Austin hadn't carried him for all those years?

"The music business today is very plastic and aimed at having a quick hit. There is no place for musicians to grow. There is no safe haven for them," she adds.

By 1996, all of these changes left Ms. Roessel feeling more than a little job dissatisfaction.

"I was doing very well - I had done all right for a girl," she said, smiling. "But I decided that all the money in the world wasn't going to give me my youth back."

She decided to take some time off again.

She had been a member of a sailing club in Jersey City and had been sailing Solings on the Hudson River. She decided that she wanted to sail around the world.

"And as luck would have it I fell in love with a trawler man," she says. For the next two years she lived on a steel-hulled trawler.

Her association with the Vineyard had begun many years before, in 1980, when she came to the Island to visit her "uncle" George Schiffer, a Vineyard Haven resident and close family friend who is not really her uncle. Along the way she had come back to the Vineyard to spend a summer.

Then, late in the winter of her second year on the trawler, she got a telephone call that Mr. Schiffer was ill. She moved to the Vineyard to take care of him.

"It wasn't until I came here in the winter that I really fell in love with the Vineyard," she says.

In the fall of 1999, Uncle George was better; Cassie Roessel decided to make a pilgrimage to Spain to hike the El Camino de Santiago. She says she was not a particularly religious person before she went, but she confesses that she had an intensely religious experience hiking the 500-mile trail over a period of six weeks.

"At the end of my trip I knew that the next thing was for me to go home and take care of my health - and I knew exactly where home was. It was on the Vineyard," she says.

Today Ms. Roessel works part time for the Vineyard Conservation Society. She is trained as an EMT and is a member of the Tisbury harbor management committee. She likes to read novels and she takes walks every day with Tugboat. And she is of course about to embark on a new venture.

"Somebody told me I am the Forrest Gump of the Steamship Authority - here I am, this person with no political motives who walked into the middle of a gunfight. Everybody shot at everybody and I was the only person left standing," she says.

She does not delude herself that the job will be easy, but she says she will apply the lessons she learned while on her pilgrimage in Spain.

"Walking 500 miles - it was pretty overwhelming to think about. But what I discovered is that if you just put one foot in front of the other, eventually you get to the end. You can do anything if you just do it one step at a time."