When Albie de Kerillis decided to run for Southold town councilman last year, the East Marion resident knew he needed to meet more people in his community.

After two failed attempts at running for public office, de Kerillis, a twice-decorated Army airborne veteran, pondered how to juice up his campaigning efforts. After much mulling, he opted to get hulling.

“A whisper in my ear said you must volunteer at the Mattituck Strawberry Festival in order to have a shot at winning,” says de Kerillis, 49.

While his campaign strategy may sound strange, the resolve made perfect sense considering the magnitude of the festival’s annual Hulling Night. Each year, Hulling Night is sponsored by the Lions Club community service organization and attracts at least 1,000 friends and neighbors to the Route 48 Mattituck fairgrounds on the eve of the three-day Strawberry Festival. This year’s event will take place on Thursday, June 16, where volunteers will don aprons and vinyl gloves under a huge white tent to remove leaves and cores until no strawberry is unturned.

“The hulling itself is a remarkable story,” says Philip Centonze, who has been a Mattituck Lion for 30 years. “Can you tell me another event on Long Island where over a thousand people who are not affiliated with the Lions Club give up their time anonymously to help a charity fundraiser and then come back the next few days and support this event by buying the strawberry goodies they themselves help prepare?”

advertisement | advertise on newsday

A bonding experience

Hulling Night is a time for fellowship, family bonding and an opportunity to create good memories, says Centonze, who lives in Riverhead and practices dentistry in Mattituck. The festival is the unofficial kickoff to the tourist season on the East End.

When Hulling Night began 62 years ago, the Strawberry Festival was a one-day, eight-hour event. At the time, the Mattituck Lions and their families would handle all the hulling. Now that the festival has grown significantly, so too have the number of volunteers and the volume of strawberries needed.

Centonze, who is marking his 30th year hulling, says the activity is the best part of the annual fair.

“To see people laugh and maybe sneak a berry in their mouth and chat with sometimes total strangers, makes it all worthwhile,” he says.

Centonze typically works in post-hulling strawberry preparation at one of the berry washing stations. After the hulling is complete, each berry is washed and stored in a refrigerator until it is mashed and prepared for the festival’s signature shortcake topping and nonalcoholic daiquiri smoothies.

This year, the festival will debut three fireworks shows including a small light show at 9:15 p.m. on Hulling Night. Throughout the course of the weekend, there will be food, games, rides and other amusements.

While de Kerillis, who will be hulling again, did not secure enough votes for a seat in his town government last year, he says he earned something more valuable.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

“I enjoyed hulling so much, interacting with my friends. It’s a blast,” de Kerillis says. “I am going this year only to have a better time.”