Originally published in Business Digest, May 1998

The Light of Reilly

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Pat Reilly wants to light up your life. She can also lead you to illumination or, at the very least, help you look up and see the light. Yes, the bad pun possibilities are endless when you’re the owner of a company that sells lighting fixtures. But there is some enlightenment Reilly wishes she could effect that might turn on people who are still in the planning stages of building or remodeling a home. That’s to teach them to see her first.

Reilly is a petite, warm, lighthearted woman who, with her daughter, Stephanie, manages Main Street Lighting Outlet in Winooski. It is the residential lighting showroom and retail outlet for Yankee Electric Supply, founded by Reilly’s husband, Gene, 13 years ago. But Main Street is not just for Yankee Electric’s customers. It’s not even at the same location. It’s a store where anybody can stop to shop for all the fixtures they want to put into their homes. From table or floor lamps to wall-mounted sconces, from suspended chandeliers to track and recessed lighting, from porch lanterns to garden path lights, there are fixtures there for every conceivable need. They include fluorescents, halogens, incandescents and the light bulbs to illuminate them — a full spectrum of lighting fixtures.

Pat ReillyPat Reilly owns and operates Main Street Lighting Outlet, a brightly lit retail store selling all kinds of residential lighting. The store is an offshoot of her husband, Gene’s, business, Yankee Electric Supply Co., also in Winooski.
(Photo: Jeff Clarke)

Reilly sheds some light on the subject of when it’s best to shop for fixtures. “Usually, when someone walks in off the street and says, ‘I’m building a house,’ we look at their blueprints, walk them through the shop so they can see what kinds of lighting we have, and then we talk to them about their lifestyles: Do they have home offices; do they have children; how do they live their lives? Then it’s down to the nitty-gritty: what type of lighting they need and how much they’ve budgeted for it. Here’s where the problem comes in.

“People are often not educated about lighting, and it will be the last thing they choose. So their budget is getting low. They’ve already done their carpeting, cabinetry and walls, and they think all they need is, maybe, a chandelier and basic light in the bedroom and bathroom. But they’re going to have this home for a long time. Kitchen lighting, for example, is really important. It’s where they’ll spend a lot of their day. If we get to them soon enough, we can educate them on how to do what they need with their lighting. Now, we can always get decent lighting for them at affordable prices, but we’d be able to serve them better if they came to us first.”

Reilly says that, unlike carpets, lighting is not something you’re likely to change six to 10 years from now. “And if you do it right the first time, you can stay with the new technology, such as the new bulbs and other changes without having to change fixtures. For instance, some fluorescent lights are no longer made. And now they have the halogens and the full-spectrums, which weren’t around a few years ago.”

Natalie and Kevin Remillard got quotes from a couple of lighting outlets before choosing Reilly to supply all the lighting and ceiling fans for their new post-and-beam home in Fairfax. “It was really the quality of the fans and the lighting that convinced us,” Natalie says, “and the price — their prices were very competitive.” Returning fixtures that didn’t work out was no problem, she adds, “they were very easy to work with.”

Main Street Lighting Outlet and its parent, Yankee Electric Supply (or Y.E.S.) comprise a true family business. While Reilly and Stephanie are the only employees at Main Street, Gene has 24 people working for him at Yankee, including their two sons, Sean and Shannon; Reilly’s niece, who works in the accounts payable department; and her sister, who’s a part-timer while attending Champlain College.

Reilly was born Patricia Savage, a native Vermonter raised in South Burlington. When she was ready for high school, her stepfather, an engineer on I-89, was working out of Montpelier, so the family moved to Northfield, where she completed high school. After graduation, Reilly spent a year at a technical school in Hartford, Conn., learning skills needed to work for the airlines. “Anything from ticketing and reservations to stewardess skills. There were a lot of men at the school, but none working as flight attendants back then.” Like many young women of the day, Reilly thought that being a stewardess sounded romantic, but she was “too short, and one of my front teeth was crooked,” so she was never a candidate for that position. “It was how things were back then,” she says.

After completing the course, Reilly went to New York City, where she worked for the next two years in reservations and ticketing for American Airlines. While the changing shift schedules of the job got tiring, she loved living in New York. “I had a good time, met a lot of great people at school, and we all went to the city to work. We lived in the same neighborhoods and hung together. My roommates and I would go down to Greenwich Village, go to shows, to the Village Vanguard, and you were safe. You could travel on the subways at night and you didn’t ever have problems.”

When she left the airline, she got a job working in the financial department of M.W. Kellogg Co., a large construction firm specializing in oil refineries and chemical plants all over the world. “It was my job, when all the freight bills came in, to verify that we had received it and were paying for what we received.” At the airlines most of the people she worked with were reasonably close to her age, but that changed at Kellogg. She remembers with warmth “an elderly gentleman who had been working for Kellogg since the first World War. And many of my co-workers were old enough to be my grandfathers. I don’t know whether they considered me a protege or what, but I came from Vermont, and in those days, they thought Vermont was on the other side of the moon. I was like a country bumpkin to them, and they felt like they had to take me under their wing.”

Although Kellogg has since moved its headquarters to Houston, at that time, it operated out of the first 10 floors of a 25-story building on 3rd Avenue, one of the first skyscrapers built in New York. “Of course, it’s like a peanut, now,’ she adds. But the building’s neighborhood continues to stand out in Reilly’s mind. It was only a few blocks from the United Nations building, and whenever a political celebrity visited there, certain elevators in Reilly’s building were sequestered, hallways were cordoned off and Secret Service men lurked on the roof. “I was there at a wonderful time,” she reminisces. “It was when Khrushchev came and pounded on the desk, Castro came there, and, of course, the Kennedys were prominent at that time. It was the time of the Cuban missile crisis.”

Reilly even got to see the early astronauts as they came through New York on parade. She chuckles recalling the time she was on 5th Avenue on her lunch hour, waiting for John Glenn’s parade to come by. “All of a sudden, there was this older lady dragging a ladder. And she said, ‘If you help me put this ladder up, I’ll let you stand on it with me.’ We had a great view.”

She met Gene in 1959, while she was still with the airline, at Irishtown, a bar in Rockaway Beach, where a friend introduced them. “My roommate’s cousin was a bartender working there for the summer. All the young people hung out there,” she says.

Gene was a New York boy, having grown up in Queens. He was just out of the service when they met, working in the wholesale appliance business. They dated and were married that same year and lived in New York until 1965. “Gene would come up here visiting with my family,” says Reilly. “He really loved Vermont. In 1965, we were here on vacation, and one afternoon, he disappeared. I thought he was visiting with one of my uncles, but I found out he’d gone to Sears and asked them what jobs could he do for them if he moved up here. He knew the appliance business, and at that time, Sears was the major purveyor of appliances. He came home from that meeting and said, ‘Guess what! We’re moving.’

“I tend to be more cautious and was a bit concerned. We were making good money in New York. Even then, he knew that someday he wanted to be his own boss.” But Reilly’s caution was tempered by the fact that she was pregnant with her second child. “We could see changes happening in New York and really felt Vermont would be a better place to raise our family.” They moved to Vermont and put their savings into a house in South Burlington.

Reilly became a homemaker for a couple of years, then went to work in the office of the dean of men at UVM until she left to be home with her children again when their third child, Shannon, was born. Meanwhile, Gene left Sears and was hired by Walsh Electric, a move that Reilly says started him in his career in the electrical wholesale business, which he continued, working next for Twin State Electric and, finally, Wesco in South Burlington, before founding Yankee Electric in 1985. They opened Main Street about six years ago. Yankee now operates out of three locations: a Winooski branch on East Allen Street; one in Morrisville and one in Lebanon, N.H.

When she’s not working, Reilly loves to spend time with her family (including two grandchildren). She’s an avid gardener —mostly perennials — and a voracious reader. She’s trying to finish Angela’s Ashes, but grins as she admits she’s had to go slowly. “I have to put it down, because I go from being so angry to being appalled to laughing.” Still, she’s eagerly anticipating the sequel.

The Reilly home in Essex sits on 10 acres, much of it left natural when they moved in. “Every year,” she says, “Gene would make the lawn bigger and bigger; he said, ‘I love to ride my tractor and do this.’ When it got to be five hours of lawn mowing, he finally realized he’d made the lawn too big. So he started making gardens. If a patch of grass didn’t look too good, I’d say, ‘Oh, let’s make it into a garden.’ If I were home, that’s what I’d do all the time.” Right now, almost five acres of their property is in lawn. “I’m not kidding,” she says.

Believe it or not, she occasionally misses doing housework. “I like housework,” she says. “I get a sense of satisfaction out of it. But you know, I can now look at a dirty window and say, ‘Well, maybe later.’ I used to sew, but I finally gave away my sewing machine last fall. I used to do needlework, but I just honestly don’t have the time any more. I’m more busy now than I was when my children were young.”

Reilly loves the freedom that comes from being an independent, family business owner. Setting her own schedule allows her to render public service as a guardian ad litem, advocating for children in the courts. “It requires a lot of work,” she says, “and being self-employed helps.” She works with cases in Family Court, District Court and Probate, and when there’s an emergency, she needs to be able to leave the store in Stephanie’s hands. She’s grateful for Stephanie’s cooperation. “Family Court being the entity that it is, you can get there and think the hearing will start at 2:15, but if the case before yours has been emotional, it may not be over until after that. So I can be gone all afternoon, when I originally think I’ll only be gone an hour.” She says most guardians tend to be either self-employed, retired or able to make an income without being tied to a nine-to-five job. “But when you see kids walk away from rehab and change their life around, you say, well, maybe I did a bit of good just by being there and trying to help.” That’s another way that Reilly has found to light up people’s lives.