Grace S. Grossman, the diminutive and crusading Nantucket Steamship Authority governor whose love and work for her island knew no boundaries, died last Thursday after a brief illness. She was 80.
"It's about the Nantucket people. I represent what the Nantucket people want," she said in an interview with the Gazette in January.
And represent them she did, in countless ways for more than 35 years. The list of community organizations that benefited from her work include the Nantucket Historical Commission, the Landmark Assisted Living Center, the Nantucket Cottage Hospital, the Small Friends Day Care - and always, always, the Steamship Authority.
In recent months she had became disheartened over boat line affairs.
"Until a few years ago we were family - disagreeing at times, but respecting one another. But times and representatives have changed and it's not like that anymore," she said in the January interview, on the occasion of her reappointment as SSA governor.
At the time of her death, she was at the forefront of an effort to examine splitting the boat line into two separate entities.
The people of Nantucket were unanimously behind the effort, and more than 400 residents turned out for a meeting last February to throw their support to Mrs. Grossman and her study group.
"The Steamship Authority is always in a turbulent period because it's so close to the people who need to use their services. But Grace was like a rock - she had her core principles and she never wavered no matter what the pressure or strain. She had a moral compass that was unchangeable," said Ronald H. Rappaport, a former Vineyard Steamship Authority governor who served with Mrs. Grossman and also her late husband, Bernard Grossman.
"I can say the same thing about both of them - they cared about the little people, they cared about the cost of groceries, they cared about the ability of the people of the island to use their lifeline in a way they could afford. Neither of them put in the time and effort for any personal glory or financial gain. They did it to help the little people and the Islands and it was a privilege to work with them. They were the ultimate public servants," Mr. Rappaport said.
Grace Swig was born in Boston on Jan. 16, 1924.
She married Bernard D. Grossman in 1943 when she was a student at Tufts University. His family founded the Grossman building supply chain. They lived in Newton until 1965 when they moved to Nantucket year-round. Mrs. Grossman had summered on Nantucket since she was a young child.
On Nantucket the Grossmans became prominent figures, throwing themselves into the new community that they had adopted and loved.
Mrs. Grossman presided over the development of the museum shop for the Nantucket Historical Association, and her attention to detail included the development of building plans, the selection of merchandise and the design of the shop. The shop became a highly profitable operation for the historical association.
Most recently she took the lead in an effort to preserve the University of Massachusetts Field Station on Nantucket.
Her tireless work extended beyond the shores of Nantucket as well.
She chaired the board of trustees for Cape Cod Community College and spearheaded a move to raise $3.6 million when state budget cuts threatened the school payroll in 1990. When Mrs. Grossman heard that the community college was facing the prospect of drastic salary cuts, she got on the ferry, drove to Hyannis and took up residence at the Sheraton Hotel - at her own expense - to commandeer the fund-raising effort. The campaign was successful and she also established a scholarship fund for students on the Cape and Islands.
She also served on the board of directors at Old Sturbridge Village and designed the museum shop there, as she did at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Dorchester.
Mr. Grossman died in March of 1996. He had been the Nantucket Steamship Authority governor for 13 years, and had been the member of the financial advisory board for seven years before that. Immediately after his death, Mrs. Grossman was appointed to serve out the remainder of his term. It marked the first time that a woman had been appointed to the boat line board.
In the Gazette interview this year she recalled the moment. "I knew from nothing," she said.
Others took a different view.
"She made Nantucket's voice heard in everything she did. She commanded respect wherever she went - what she and Bernie have done for the island of Nantucket - you don't have enough paper to explain it," said Robert Murphy, who was the Vineyard member of the boat line financial advisory board for 20 years.
"I truly respected her, and this is a giant loss," he added.
"Grace was a tenacious fighter and she had principles, such principles," said John Alley, chairman of the Dukes County Commission. "She was very conscious of the fiscal responsibility of the authority and she genuinely believed that the Steamship Authority should work to make it easier on those folks that had to take the boat. She had a saying when she would chastise her fellow board members and management - she said the Steamship Authority treats the Islands like a penal colony and we are the inmates," he also said.
"Her power came from the knowledge of the people of Nantucket that she was not involved in this for any personal gain. Their interests were her interests, and she would stand and fight for them and people loved her because of that. It's an end of an era. We will never see another family like the Grossmans in politics; it's an enormous loss for Nantucket and, frankly, it's a loss for all of us. She was a treasure. We didn't always agree, but, boy, when she was on your side there was nobody better," Mr. Rappaport said. He added:
"I also felt she was the best politician in southeastern Massachusetts."
She was a staunch Democrat and close family friends with former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and his wife Kitty.
She was also a character in her own right. She played practical jokes on friends and wrote funny doggerel for special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries. She ate breakfast every morning at the Downyflake Restaurant on Nantucket amid the truckers and construction workers. She drank iced coffee, even in the winter. She did not fly and always took the ferry and drove her car to meetings. She earned many nicknames over the years, including Mother Trucker and the Queen of Nantucket.
Sharp-witted to a fault, she always dressed elegantly but shunned the limelight. In the January interview with the Gazette she refused to have her picture taken - and later reluctantly agreed to sit for the camera, but only after an effort by reporters and editors that was equivalent to a full-court press.
In her honor, flags were flown at half staff at the Steamship Authority and at Cape Cod Community College this week.
She is survived by her son Richard Grossman and her daughter in law, Elaine Warshell, of Norwich, Vt.; her daughter Betsy de Leiris of Newport, R.I., and four grandchildren.
A celebration of her life will be held on Friday at 1 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Nantucket. Interment is private.
Donations may be made in her memory to The Bernard D. and Grace S. Grossman Scholarship Fund, Cape Cod Community College Educational Foundation, 2240 Iyanough Road, West Barnstable, MA 02668; or to the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, P.0. Box 13, Nantucket, MA 02554, noting that the gift is for the purchase of the University of Massachusetts property.