Nancy Coles Hegeman Stephens, a fourth-generation East Chop seasonal resident, and for more than 50 years the Gazette's East Chop correspondent, died Jan. 14 in Charlotte, N.C. after a long illness. She was the wife of the late Page P. Stephens.
She was born March 19, 1921 in Providence, R.I., a daughter of the late Joseph Coles Hegeman and Dorothy Wiggin Hegeman. Her father's grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Barak G. Coles of New York city, began coming to the Vineyard in the 1870s and were among the first summer residents of East Chop, living first on Atlantic avenue and later on Highland Drive, today's East Chop Drive.
In 1924, their daughter, Mrs. E. Coles Hegeman, Nancy's grandmother, bought land on the Bluffs near Sandy Bluff Lane and built the spacious home that came to be known as the Hegeman house. In time, she added part of a house from the Methodist Camp Ground to its back. Today the Hegeman house is the summer home of Page, the oldest Stephens son.
It was at East Chop, indeed, that Nancy Stephens' parents met and courted, for her mother's family had summered on Dempster Park off Massachusetts avenue.
Nancy was a graduate of the Low-Heywood School in Stamford, Conn., and a member of the class of 1941 at Pine Manor Junior College in Wellesley. Growing up in Providence, she made her debut at the Agawam Hunt Club there and, as a young woman, was a member of the Providence Junior League. In 1945, she married Page P. Stephens of Springfield, Ill., then a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve. He had seen active duty in the Atlantic and the Pacific in World War II and been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.
Growing up summers at East Chop in the big house with a porch overlooking Nantucket Sound, Nancy came to enjoy gardening (she was a member of the Martha's Vineyard Garden Club), crewing on Vineyard 15s, attending Tuesday night dances at the East Chop Tennis Club and swimming and dancing at the East Chop Beach Club. It was not until she was in her 50s, however, that she became a tennis player. But she quickly became a player with a vengeance. She is remembered by fellow players for her "horrible chop shot that would come over the net and just drop," always leaving her gleeful.
In the late 1940s, Gazette editor Elizabeth Bowie Hough asked Nancy's mother, who was always active in East Chop social affairs, if she would be interested in writing the East Chop column. She wasn't, but proposed her daughter and Nancy and the Gazette were a perfect fit. From then on, it was around that column that much of her summer life revolved.
About midday, she would be on the sands of the beach club, pad and pencil in hand, moving from group to group under the beach umbrellas, inquiring about houseguests, travel plans and even events in the lives of East Chop dogs. She was vibrant and outgoing and enthusiastic, with a warm smile that she inherited from her mother. She would corner her prey and gossip a little herself, offering just enough tidbits to those whom she was interviewing to disarm them into telling her their best-kept secrets. She was not quiet about what she was doing and those dressing in beach houses who had news to recount, hearing her on the boardwalk, would come out with their information for her.
Meanwhile, her three sons, Page, John and David, would be in the water, and, before her own beach day ended, she, too, would be off for a swim. Her chatty columns tended to start off with a little something about the season and the weather.
"Autumn blew in with a blast of cold air after the moon earlier had made night seem like day, casting shadows of trees and shrubs," she wrote in September, 1997. "Extra blankets have been pulled from linen closets, long unused sweaters from bureaus."
And in July of 1990, she wrote "Orange day lilies, so carefree on the Island, are brightening the landscape. It is the season of lilies, with gardens of hemerocallis in the most beguiling colors, from velvety wine reds, lavenders and yellows to the palest of roses with many shades in between."
Until 1954, the Stephens family summered with Nancy's parents in the Hegeman house, but as the family grew, it seemed best to have a house of their own. With Page Stephens doing much of the work himself, a new sunny, modern concrete block house was built on land her father had on Munroe avenue. Like her parents' house, it was close to the tennis and beach clubs - just a short bicycle ride away, indeed, for vigorous cyclist Nancy. And there she planted a garden, and, working in it, if she saw a car speeding by, would not hesitate to shout out to the driver to slow down. After all, she was the guardian and protector, as well as the reporter for East Chop.
In their new house, the Stephenses entertained with enthusiasm. If they were on the Island late in the fall, there was always a gala party to celebrate their Sept. 29 wedding, with her favorite drink of gin on the rocks. And there were evening visits to the Portuguese-American Club and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Clubhouse on neighboring Towanticut avenue. There, the Stephenses would spend time at the bar and happily mingle with genuine Islanders over a beer or two or a mudslide of coffee ice cream and Kahlua.
Sundays, the Stephenses were likely to be in attendance at Union Chapel, in which both Nancy's father and her husband were active.
Devoted Vineyarder that she was, it was never enough to be on the Island only in summer. For most of their married life, Nancy and Page Stephens wintered in Westfield, N.J., where Page worked for the Proctor & Gamble Manufacturing Company and Nancy was the society editor of the weekly Westfield Leader. But Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays would almost always find them in their Munroe avenue home. "She wanted to squeeze everything she could out of the Vineyard," her cousin Joan Potter remembers.
After Page Stephens' 1979 retirement, however, the warm weather of South Carolina took the family in winter to River Hills Plantation in Lake Wylie in that state. There, Nancy happily played on the local tennis team and Page golfed,
In later years, in addition to adding tennis to her accomplishments, Nancy's indefatigable curiosity led her to study genealogy. The Stephenses visited Cornwall, home of her husband's forebears. There, Nancy did extensive research into his family's beginnings. Her own family, on her mother' side, had been Tories who left for Canada in the American Revolution, she also discovered that in Colonial times, two forebears on the Stephens side were a husband and wife who were tried, convicted and executed in witchcraft trials, she would proudly and outspokenly say. For Nancy Stephens tended to be outspoken as well as unsquelchable.
Her devotion to the Gazette and its staff never flagged. When she traveled, she would write tidbits of information back to the paper - if not for her column, then in letter to the editor form. In 1962 when she took her sons to a ticker tape parade in New York for returning astronaut John Glenn, she wrote back colorfully to the paper describing the "people on roofs, in windows and hanging from ledges of buildings." A stained glass window in an addition to the Stephens house bears the bunch of grapes logo of the Gazette.
But two years ago, Page Stephens died. Two years before that, it had become too difficult for the couple to make Vineyard visits.
Nancy is survived by her three sons, Page of Charlotte, N.C., John of Greenville, S.C. and David of Oakland, Calif.; two granddaughters and three grandsons. She will be remembered on the Island with a memorial celebration of her life this summer.
Contributions in her memory may be made to the Martha's Vineyard Museum and designated for the Fund for the Restoration of the East Chop Lighthouse. The museum address is Box 1310, Edgartown 02539.