There is nothing sleepy at the Portuguese-American Club in Oak Bluffs this winter, or any winter.
While many of the Island’s summer restaurants and clubs might slip into a state of hibernation, at the PA Club the music is loud, the television is playing and the heat is on. Someone has a story to tell.
The club, off Vineyard avenue, is the Island’s community living room, dining room and kitchen. For many of members, the place offers a second home, a second living space. The oven is seldom off.
Tomorrow hundreds of people are expected to attend the annual WMVY Chili Contest at the club. The fundraiser is for the Red Stocking Club, a nonprofit organization committed to bringing gifts for the holidays for the Island’s less fortunate children.
The PA Club is always busy, not just tomorrow. The club, run by the Holy Ghost Association, isn’t so much a Portuguese organization as it is a benevolent old club that is part of the sinew and fabric of the Vineyard community. Warm greetings are a given at the club every afternoon and well into the evening.
Last weekend the club hosted a special gathering, a remembrance of the late Joe Nunes, following a graveside service. Mr. Nunes was a co-founder of the club, a past president, and an icon among the members. Photographs of him were on display on a well-decorated table.
That afternoon Kaye Manning, his companion, shared memories of the club and Joe with friends. “Joe dug the cellar for the club in the 1930s with a team of horses,” she said.
Hundreds came for the luncheon in the simple space, affectionately known as the soup room. More than 160 people signed the guest book in an hour. Red and white carnations decorated the tables and windows. Outside, the Portuguese national flag flew at half staff.
Hours later, that same hall was transformed to a fundraiser for a former Islander who was recently diagnosed with bone cancer. A benefit dinner was held to help Kathy Murphy, 44, pay for her mortgage while she undergoes treatment. Ms. Murphy had been a private cook. Her dear friend, Brenda McMorrow of West Tisbury, coordinated the pork tenderloin dinner.
A short distance away, measured in feet, in the old bar, the Martha’s Vineyard Harley Riders staged their evening gathering. On this frosty cold January night, the club parking lot was chock-full.
Tricia Bergeron, president of the club, sees no down time when it comes to reaching out to help people in the community. She works full time at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital emergency room as a care coordinator. And when she isn’t there, she is working at the club, overseeing all that take place. Her cell phone goes off continually. Between her conversations with members at the club, she is checking messages.
The PA Club is always a busy place, Ms. Bergeron said. She has been president for five years and a member since 1975.
“Joe Nunes always said this is a benevolent society,” she said. “That is our mission first. This is what we do.”
So when someone needs a place to house a fundraiser, the club often is the first choice. They get a smile when they come to the club, Ms. Bergeron said.
While already widely known on the Vineyard, it might as well again be reported that you don’t have to have Portuguese blood in your veins to be a member.
And forget about social climbing. There is no distinction within the club over what the members do for a living.
The club boasts a membership of 1,200, double what it was a decade ago. The physical plant is also bigger. Four years ago, the club built a new bar with plenty of room for gatherings at the bar and at the table.
So that means there are two bars. And on any weekend night both are busy. Members will throw darts, play cribbage, cards, plot and converse about their business, or talk sports.
“A lot of houses get built at the club,” Ms. Bergeron said. Carpenters, plumbers and electricians spent a lot of time talking work at the bar.
Vice president Tom Forend said the club’s success is really based on a very simple idea. Friends and visitors come for fellowship. In an age when communities are splintering, the club is about reaching out and caring.
“My feeling is that the older you get in life, the more responsibilities you take on,” Mr. Forend said. “One of those responsibilities is giving back to the community,” he said.
Tomorrow’s chili contest is but one small example of the many events that take place at the club.
As Ms. Bergeron said, “We give people who join the club the opportunity to care and take care of others. Some folks don’t know how to do that. We show them how to care. There are many different avenues to be able to give help to others. We have a vehicle where people can jump on and help. And we are all here because that was taught to us. My family has been involved with the club forever.”
Two weeks ago, on Friday, Jan. 11, the club hosted the You’ve Got a Friend benefit evening dinner and dance. Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish performed, setting the dance floor jumping.
Late in the evening, Abigail Higgins, president of You’ve Got a Friend, a nonprofit Vineyard benevolent organization, took a moment between songs to thank those who came for the evening.
“I would like to thank the PA Club and our board member Sue Madeiras, who made our benefit evening tonight possible,” Ms. Higgins said. “Your hospitality and help are well-known to Island people.”
Similar thoughts were shared last weekend, when Ms. McMorrow spoke to the Gazette about the dinner for her friend. “The PA Club has been helping people out for years. They’ve always been there when someone is in a rut,” Ms. McMorrow said.
Last year, the PA Club gave $41,000 in scholarships to seniors graduating from the regional high school. Club scholarships have been rising since 18 years ago, when the club gave $1,000.
February will be busier than January at the club. Ms. Bergeron said they’ve got more fundraisers scheduled. “There will be a lot of Valentine’s Day parties,” she said.
Preparations for this July’s annual Portuguese American Festival have already started, Mr. Forend said. The big festival attracts thousands for a quick weekend of activities, includes an auction, entertainment and a parade through Oak Bluffs. The festival is the club’s signature event and attracts summer friends who schedule their summer around the weekend. The centerpiece to the festival is a tribute to Queen Isabella of Portugal, who cared for the disadvantaged.
The PA Club isn’t without concerns. The club carries a $400,000 mortgage with payments required every month. And there has been a struggle to find a manager to run the place.
Referring to the mortgage, Mr. Forend said: “We would like to get rid of that big nut, not so much for us but for the community. We are coming out through some tough times ourselves. Our board of directors have been meeting every Wednesday night for a year because our financial situation wasn’t that good.”
Ms. Bergeron said: “We built the bar for ourselves. We do so much for the community, this was the one thing we did for ourselves,” said Ms. Bergeron.
As Mr. Forend said, “We used to have an old bar and now we have this beautiful new bar. We are more of a business and we have a great board.”
One outcome: the price of drinks at the club went up. Recently, a drink that had cost $2.50 went to $2.75; a drink formerly $3 went to $3.50.
Of the club’s 1,200 members, a core of 50 people do a lot of the work. A club membership is $50 a year if the member agrees to donate five hours of time, and $100 for those who don’t.
“We are a family. We have our ups and downs. But like a family we do it together,” Ms. Bergeron said.