Off to Wisconsin

Wortzels Leave After Years of Caring Service


The boxes are packed, the walls are nearly bare and still the phone is ringing. One, two, three, four calls in an hour. So many calls that they take turns answering. They are spending each day - attending meetings, leading discussions, fulfilling responsibilities - as though they will be on the Island for the next year. They are, in fact, leaving next Friday.

After 18 years on the Island, Arthur and Clarice Wortzel are moving to Madison, Wis. They came here from Washington, D.C., after years abroad in places such as Moscow, Japan and Poland. But the Island is where they put down roots, the first community they found themselves in for more than a two or four-year turn.

"In a sense, I think we valued more than we otherwise would the continuity of relationships here," Mr. Wortzel says. "The fact that the people we met 18 years ago are still our friends. And they're still here and we're still here."

"That had never happened to us before," Mrs. Wortzel adds.

Before, Mr. Wortzel served in the U.S. State Department as a diplomatic officer specializing in Soviet affairs. He served under seven administrations, from Truman to Carter, and for 28 years the Wortzels traveled between home in Washington and assignments abroad. A teacher by profession, Mrs. Wortzel taught abroad in English language schools. They came to the Island after his retirement - their connection was through family friends, the Ravitches, who own land on Ice House Pond in West Tisbury. "We came out to visit them, and that was it," she says. "Love at first sight. It was a very easy decision. It was going to be six months in Washington and six months here, but that was not sufficient."

Despite coming from such a transient life, they agree the shift to the Vineyard was an easy adjustment. "It was a very wonderful, welcoming community," Mrs. Wortzel says. "We had been part of an embassy community, but never a civil community." She pauses. "I think if you give, you get. We made a lot of friends, and Arthur has certainly dug his roots deep."

Deep - and widespread. Volunteerism became the Wortzels' way on-Island. The names and contributions emerge with time (they're too modest to run down a list outright). He led discussions at the Howes House, sat on the coordinating committee of the Dukes County Health Council, was a board member of the Foundation for Island Health, treasurer of the Chamber Music Society, a trained mediator and president of both the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center and Martha's Vineyard Community Services.

Community Services was where it started. He was approached by then-president Harriet Sayre to serve on the committee - within a year he was elected to the board, and one month later elected president. Eighteen years later, he's still involved.

"Art's heart is there," Mrs. Wortzel says. "It's a very extraordinary organization."

"I don't know how much credit any one person should try to take," he says of his work there. That may be, but in 1998 Community Services celebrated Mr. Wortzel and his contributions to the social welfare of the Island in a two-hour ceremony with board members, staff, friends and relatives all speaking to his spirit of service.

He was responsible for consolidating the different programs at Community Services, bringing coherence in both the way the programs interacted with one another and in location. "When I suddenly found myself president of Community Services, we were scattered all over, we had a building here and a room there," he recalls. "The three buildings across from the high school were my project."

Mrs. Wortzel was also drawn into Community Services. She helped turn around the Thrift Shop, running it for a time as an all-volunteer operation that went from netting $8,000 a year to more than $100,000. She also sits on the board of both the Neighborhood Convention and the Hebrew Center.

"I don't need to be quite as engaged as he does," she says, smiling. "And he's getting to that point. My kids don't believe it."

"I said I'm looking forward to retirement," he protests.

She puts a hand on his arm. "They said, ‘Oh, you're going to take over Madison.' "

The kids are what's bringing them to Wisconsin - they have three daughters who live there ("What more can a fellow ask?" he says) and also grandchildren. "We're in good health now, but - well, now is the time to enjoy them," Mrs. Wortzel says.

"Of course, our kids did nothing to discourage us," he adds. "We were almost, in a loving way, entrapped. It was one of our daughters who suggested we take a look at this place."

"She made an appointment," she says.

As they prepare to leave, it's been a new goodbye every day for weeks. Each afternoon of late, they've gone somewhere on-Island to take pictures: Alley's General Store, West Tisbury town hall, the ferry docking in Vineyard Haven, Cedar Tree Neck. It's not so much the photographs as making a point to go places one last time. Their favorite Island spot, however, is an arm-sweep away - she gestures to the view of Ice House Pond out their sliding glass doors. "How could it not be?" she asks.

"We love the walk up Indian Hill Road. That's many favorite moments," she adds. "I think that road is the way the Island was."

"For all of the beauty of the Island," he says, "what is at the heart of what our life here has meant to us is the people."

The people, some 300 strong, will be at the Hebrew Center this Sunday for a farewell party "plotted by two friends" and sponsored by four organizations they've helped. "If I could disappear, I would," she says. "I tried to talk them out of it. I could not - they said, ‘You have to accept this, because people want to say goodbye.' " Her eyes well up. "If they ask me to speak, I'll collapse. He'll probably get up and say something, but I won't be able to.

"I think we've both always been happy about the moves we've made," she says. "The new environment, the new culture, the new community. And looked forward to it." She shakes her head. "Not this time. This time I'm finding it hard."

"It's not that we don't look forward to it," he says. "But we're locked in. Our hearts are here."