Herbert R. Hancock, selectman, lobsterman, builder and artist, died at home Thursday morning, April 26, after a short, brave battle with cancer. He was 71.
Mr. Hancock was born Sept. 15, 1929, in Oak Bluffs, and lived in Vineyard Haven. He was the son of the late Hariph Clayton Hancock and Marion B. Hancock, also of Vineyard Haven. He attended Tisbury School from first to twelfth grade. He then went on to Wentworth Institute of Technology, where he studied to be a builder. When he returned home to the Island, he married his childhood sweetheart, Jean Flanders, in October 1949.
Also in 1949 he went to work for his father, and then went into business for himself. He built his first house for himself and Jean when he was 19 years old, and he has been in Chilmark ever since. They had two children, Deborah and Jessica, who died in 1973. Herb and Jean had 33 wonderful years together. Jean died of cancer in 1981.
First elected on May 20, 1964 to serve in the then combined roles of selectman, assessor and member of the board of public welfare, Herb anchored Chilmark as it evolved from a mostly poor, tightly knit fishing and farming community to a town of million-dollar houses.
Herb did numerous things for Chilmark. He and then fellow selectman Lew King wrote the zoning laws and got them started. Chilmark implemented zoning regulations a district at a time. Herb made certain that the first district included his family's ancestral farm in the area of Chilmark known as Quenames, "instead of picking on someone else first."
On the board of health, he wrote the first rules: 150 feet from pond or brook. Herb also helped to establish the Martha's Vineyard Commission. He was instrumental in getting Gov. Francis Sargent to write legislation, and he convinced all the selectmen of the Island to vote for it before the towns did.
Herb, working with Lew King and Leslie Flanders, was responsible for setting up Lucy Vincent Beach, which he got for the town for nothing. And he limited the number of houses that could be built there from twenty to four.
Herb protected the Chilmark harbor for commercial fishing and saved and created a lot of dock space for townspeople, making sure that there was enough transient space left to generate $200,000 a year in revenue for the town. He helped set up rules for the harbor so that it will stay that way.
Herb was on the Island action committee to stop Sen. Edward M. (Ted)Kennedy from turning the Island into a national park, and he persuaded all the Island selectmen to back it. He went alone to Washington, D.C. and testified before the House of Representatives and the United States Senate, then returned with David Flanders successfully to urge a Nixon veto.
Herb built the Chilmark Community Center and kept the tennis courts there. He designed two additions to the fire station for free. He also designed the original Menemsha bathhouse (and the new one) for free.
He said of his favorite accomplishment, the youth lot program, that he "wanted to do something so that the kids could get a chance to live up here where they grew up, but couldn't afford it."
Most recently he led the successful fight to maintain the Coast Guard facility in Menemsha under Chilmark's control. Herb built at least 300 houses in Chilmark, and about 30 in other towns, and many houses for himself while most of us were sleeping. Despite a record of incumbency that most politicians would envy, Herb was no politician. Throughout 13 terms, he had a reputation for speaking his mind, briefly and to the point, standing his ground even when it meant resisting pressure from friends and neighbors if he thought something was best for Chilmark. Herb never wavered from his reluctance to impose new regulations or to spend tax dollars he thought would be unduly burdensome on property owners. When he died, Chilmarkers could take satisfaction in a property tax rate of $1.96 per $1,000 — the lowest among the Island's six towns.
With a twinkle in his eye, he didn't say much, but he was always thinking. He was a very kind, thoughtful, caring man who was always there to listen, think and then give advice.
He was most interested in the development of young people. One time his grandson Mark, then age 8, was visiting and Herb decided to teach Mark how to lobster. Herb gave him five pots, took him up in the pond and taught him to bait and set the pots. Three days later they returned and pulled the pots. Herb gave Mark the going rate for the lobsters. Mark made a lot of money that summer while learning lasting lessons about working, lobstering and fun.
For the last 15 years, Herb could be seen in his beloved lobster boat, the Billie H., which was named for his second sweetheart, Billie Gibbons of Oak Bluffs, whom he married Nov. 13, 1982. They have had 19 very special years together. Half of Billie went with him.
He is survived by his wife, Billie, daughter Deborah, stepdaughter Buffy Knight, stepsons Tyke Knight and Steve Knight and Steve's wife, Sherry, Alan Porter, Gil Carroll, six step-grandchildren, Joshua, Stacy, Tara Knight, Mark and Corey Knight and Courtney Wilkerson, his mother-in-law Helen C. Gibbons, all of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and his two sisters, Ruth Gilmour, of Weyland, and Marjorie Philips of Virginia, and many other relatives and many, many friends.
In lieu of flowers, please send donations to the Chilmark Library for the Jessica Hancock Fund or the Chilmark Community Church for the new Sunday School building.
Herb's one liners, like "finest kind" and "that's the spirit," will be missed. And he will miss his coffee ice cream.
A graveside service will be held at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 29, at Abel's Hill Cemetery in Chilmark. Immediately following, there will be a gathering to celebrate Herb's life at the Chilmark Community Center. The family would appreciate everyone bringing a dish to share.