As recent lengthy obituaries in national newspapers attest, Anthony Lewis was a remarkable journalist. What always struck me most about his writing was the clarity of his thinking, the forcefulness of his prose and the directness of his voice. A legal journalist and columnist for The New York Times, he made the complicated decisions of the United States Supreme Court understandable to lawyers and non-lawyers alike. He used his twice-weekly column, which he wrote for more than 30 years, to raise awareness of injustices large and small, bringing his passionate voice to issues national and international. He also wrote three outstanding books, including Gideon’s Trumpet. During his career he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice.
For all that, those of us who had the privilege of knowing him in a place where he was most at home, on the Tisbury Great Pond in West Tisbury, understood that he was devoted to all things Vineyard. Tony started out renting; then in the 1950s he bought a camp on Deep Bottom Cove which had no telephone and no electricity. When he was staying on the Vineyard, he would call in his news stories and his columns from the pay phone at Alley’s, or stop by — sometimes by boat — to use the phones of neighbors along the pond.
Later Tony and his wife Margaret Marshall bought a second property on the pond and built a new house — with electricity and a telephone. The parcel was large, so they subdivided it into three lots and gave one to The Trustees of Reservations. His actions were consistent with his values.
Mostly, Tony was a quiet Vineyard resident. He loved to garden and was a superb maker of beach plum jelly. He had dinners at home with friends and family. My wife and I were lucky to be counted among them. Sometimes, though, he slipped into journalist mode even about the peccadilloes of Island life. From time to time during my tenure as the Vineyard representative to the Steamship Authority, Tony would send a letter privately, and not for publication, commenting on an issue or an article in a newspaper. I think he would not mind if I shared some of those with you now.
In 1994, a letter arrived from Tony flagging what he termed a “measurable problem.” He wrote:
“The reservation office has taken to playing pop music while one is on hold . . . .Why the [SSA] should inflict that station and its music on a captive audience I cannot understand. I found it so painful the other day that after five minutes I hung up . . . Please: stop the music.”
In 1997, the Steamship Authority adopted a reservations-only policy for peak season weekends. All the boats in the fleet were put on the run, but a reservation was needed to travel. In other words, the old standby policy in which anyone who arrived in Woods Hole by 2 p.m. was guaranteed to get their vehicle over — even if the boats had to run through the night — was eliminated.
The policy was met with a hue and cry on the Vineyard, particularly from those in the real estate industry. A notably unfavorable article in the Boston Globe carried the headline “Vineyard Tourism Said To Miss The Boat.” The May 1997 story bemoaned the “waterfront homes sitting empty on the Vineyard . . .” Tony took offense and responded in his usual direct way.
“Has the writer of the piece . . . actually seen any empty houses that are usually rented at this time of year? I’ll bet a jar of beach plum jelly that she has not . . . .”
Tony quietly involved himself in other Vineyard issues as well, including the expansion of the airport and various conservation efforts. He was a gracious man who preferred a droll sense of humor to petty personal attacks. He had the unique ability to focus on the larger picture.
The last time we were together, I told him, “Tony, you are one of my heroes.” In typical fashion, he replied: “Now why would you say something like that?” I said it because it was true.
Tony, you will be greatly missed.
Ronald H. Rappaport is an Edgartown attorney.