Thomas Jonathan Revere (known to all as Jonathan), a well-known figure in the cultural and political life of the Island, died at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston on Sunday, Jan. 19, of complications resulting from a massive heart attack earlier in January. He was 74.
A longtime resident of Seven Gates Farm in West Tisbury, Jonathan, had a colorful life with many friends in many places, and was known Island-wide for his acerbic wit and humor. A published poet and emerging novelist, his encyclopedic knowledge of literature and the theatre spanned the arts. At the time of his death he was completing a novel he had contemplated for many years.
The son of Thomas and Althea Revere, Jonathan was born in New York city and attended the Browning School there, as well as schools in Montclair, N.J., and Washington, D.C. In 1960 he graduated from Harvard University as class poet. During the summers of his early college years in the late 1950s, he worked as a reporter for the Vineyard Gazette, driving to Edgartown in a 1938 Packard his mother had bought him for transportation. He said it burned more oil than gas.
His introduction to the Island came in the early 1950s, shortly after his father died prematurely, also of a heart attack, when his mother bought a house on Lagoon Pond in Oak Bluffs. In 1955 his mother bought a large house in Seven Gates Farm, which he and his sister, Lee, have occupied as full-time residents since the mid-1980s.
Post college he worked in the Boston area on historic preservation and then worked with David Bird and Mel King on housing rehabilitation projects to provide low-income housing in the city. He later teamed up with David Bird again to work on issues of technology transfer and patent development, where his work took him to Mexico, South America, Europe and Asia.
Over the past three decades Jonathan’s Island involvements reflect his active mind, imagination and interests. He served on the board of directors of the Vineyard Playhouse beginning in the late 1980s, leaving the board in 1997, during which time he also appeared in its productions. An accomplished thespian, often taking on the roles of heavily mannered, slightly stodgy but often very funny patricians he gave memorable performances in Noises Off, Annie, She Loves Me, Frankenstein and The Doc Brief, by John Mortimer, who also wrote Rumpole of the Bailey, lines from which Jonathan worked into his daily vocabulary.
The role of Elwood P. Dowd in the 1991 Vineyard Playhouse production of Harvey seemed to be written for Jonathan. Without much apparent effort he became on stage the eccentric bachelor living in a small town, one of only a few who could see a six-foot three-inch white rabbit named Harvey. Dowd’s sanity is put into question by his equally eccentric sister, Veta Louise.
Often telling the story on himself, Jonathan would relate how in his role as the monster in Frankenstein, he drove home late one night in full costume because he was too tired to take off the elaborate makeup he was in. In keeping with Vineyard tradition at the time, he stopped to pick up two young women hitchhikers on State Road as he was coming up the hill from Vineyard Haven. As they opened the car door to get in and the dome light went on, they saw him and went screaming into the night in sheer terror. He had forgotten he was still in costume.
An aficionado of old movies, particularly those of the 1930s and 1940s, Jonathan was part of a group which brought classic films, with commentary, to the old Grange Hall in West Tisbury. For several years, he read poetry aloud while with a group called The Troubadours.
With the advent of MVTV just after the turn of the century, Jonathan found a new calling: videographer. He pursued this newfound interest with intensity and immersion. He became a board member of MVTV, learned how to use a camera and began bringing it to public meetings. At the time, a TV camera at a public meeting was essentially unheard of, and its presence, as well as Jonathan’s, was not always welcome.
Now the weekly broadcasts of Island selectman’s meetings, among others, are routine, and watched by large audiences Island-wide. Jonathan was a pioneer in this regard and faithfully recorded meetings in West Tisbury and Chilmark for over a decade. Not limited to this important service in the interest of open government, he became a producer of hundreds of other programs for MVTV. Together with Cynthia Riggs, he produced close to 300 interviews with Island writers, painters and musicians which included, in 2007, a popular series of interviews titled Our Town, about the residents and features of West Tisbury in that moment.
An enduring and passionate interest in government transparency and local politics led him to become, during the 1990s, one of the founders of the West Tisbury Taxpayers Association. His experience there and his video involvement subsequently led him to run for public office repeatedly. At his death he was an elected member of West Tisbury’s finance committee, and had served on many town committees and boards over a period of several decades. His pursuit of government transparency eventually led to substantial reform in the way in which public officials were nominated in West Tisbury.
He is remembered by a wide circle of friends on the Island as a man with an extraordinary gift for friendship, generosity and devotion, fiercely loyal and always ready with a pun and a razor wit that could give a close shave. His ability to connect people and match-make among friends was a special gift. Several of his friends have noted that having Jonathan as a friend knew no equal.
He is survived by his sister, Lee Revere of West Tisbury.
A celebration of his life is being planned for mid-April, which would have been his 75th birthday.