SSA Governor Is Found Dead; State Police Investigate Cause

Gazette Senior Writer

Kathryn A. (Cassie) Roessel, whose tireless and enthusiastic representation of Martha's Vineyard on the Steamship Authority board of governors made her one of the best-known residents of the Island, was found dead outside her Vineyard Haven home last Saturday morning. She was 51.

State police detectives attached to the Cape and Islands district attorney's office are investigating Ms. Roessel's death, as they would any unattended death. Tisbury police chief Theodore Saulnier said Tuesday there were no obvious marks of injury on the body.

Ms. Roessel's fiancé, Dukes County commissioner Nelson Smith, found the body, Chief Saulnier said. The Tisbury police and ambulance were notified around 9 a.m. Dr. Michael Jacobs, the Dukes County medical examiner, pronounced Ms. Roessel dead at the scene.

First assistant district attorney Michael Trudeau said an autopsy likely will be completed this week. A toxicology report will take at least several weeks to complete, Mr. Trudeau said. No autopsy had been completed as of yesterday afternoon.

Documents that may have been related to her death were found inside the house on State Road, Chief Saulnier said Tuesday. The police chief declined to comment if the documents were in Ms. Roessel's writing.

Memorial services for Ms. Roessel will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at Grace Church in Vineyard Haven. The Rev. Alden Besse will officiate. A reception hosted by family and friends will follow in the church parish hall. The public is welcome.

"We are all deeply saddened by the sudden loss of Cassie," Deborah Medders, a friend of the families of Ms. Roessel and her fiancé, said in a written statement.

"She will be greatly missed by her family and friends, and by the Island community at large," Ms. Medders said. "She touched many of our lives in recent years through her role as member for Martha's Vineyard to the SSA. We are thankful for all the kindnesses received and ask for privacy during this difficult time."

At the monthly boat line meeting on the Tuesday before her death, Ms. Roessel moved that the SSA authorize construction of a new $30.5 million ferry for the Vineyard route, and that the SSA name the ferry the Island Home. Both motions passed unanimously.

Ms. Roessel wept after the board of governors approved the new ferry, intended to replace the Islander. The vote, she said, culminated two years of effort.

Ms. Roessel's term as governor was due to run out at the end of December. She had applied for reappointment, but said at last week's SSA meeting that she anticipated that the county commission would not rename her to the post. For that reason, Ms. Roessel said, she didn't plan to attend candidate interviews scheduled this past Tuesday by the county commissioners. Five applicants including Ms. Roessel had applied for the position.

The commission canceled the scheduled interviews out of respect to Ms. Roessel. The interviews have been rescheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday. On Monday this week county manager E. Winn Davis ordered flags at county facilities to be flown at half-staff in her memory.

County officials paid tribute to Ms. Roessel.

"We were all shocked and saddened by her untimely passing," county commission chairman John Alley said. "We appreciate all of her work on the Authority on behalf of the Island."

"Cassie was passionate about representing and serving the people of the Vineyard with the Steamship Authority, and yet always maintained a sense of humor," Mr. Davis said. "She will be sorely missed."

People who saw Ms. Roessel in the week before her death said she seemed to be in good spirits. But recent years also brought her a series of blows. Friends say she was hit hard by the deaths in rapid succession of her then-fiancé, Travis Tuck, in November 2002, and her adopted uncle George Schiffer in December 2002. Her beloved Cairn terrier, Tugboat, died around the same time.

Ms. Roessel, who previously worked as a litigator for the city of New York and as an entertainment industry lawyer, hadn't attended a SSA meeting when the county commission appointed her to the post in 2001.

She quickly assumed a leadership role among the boat line members, however, and was a strong supporter of the first SSA chief executive officer, Fred C. Raskin.

Ms. Roessel also brought a good-natured and sometimes quirky presence to boat line meetings. She sometimes brought her most recent Cairn terrier, Sydney, to the meetings, where he would wander around the room.

During her tenure, Ms. Roessel often crossed swords with longtime Nantucket governor, Grace Grossman. Mrs. Grossman, who consistently found herself outvoted by Ms. Roessel and other SSA members, eventually led an effort exploring whether Nantucket should secede from the boat line. In turn, Ms. Roessel questioned whether Mrs. Grossman should remain on the board.

Mrs. Grossman, whose health had been failing, died in July. Shortly after Mrs. Grossman's death, Ms. Roessel said, "It was an interesting, but little-known fact, that I really loved Grace. I remember how kind she was to me when my fiancé Travis was dying, how kind she was when the chips were down. I never forgot that."

Ms. Roessel subsequently formed a successful alliance with Mrs. Grossman's successor, Flint Ranney, with each backing the other's initiatives.

Mr. Ranney said his reaction to word of Ms. Roessel's death was one of shock and disbelief.

Ms. Roessel, he said, thought very seriously about any question that she considered, and sometimes convinced him to reverse his views and agree with her.

A delegation from Nantucket is scheduled to travel to the Vineyard for Ms. Roessel's memorial service.

Barnstable governor and board chairman Robert O'Brien issued a statement in which he said both the SSA and the Vineyard had suffered a great loss.

"For the last three years, we have all come to respect and admire Cassie's immeasurable talents, dedication and compassion," Mr. O'Brien said. "She arrived at the SSA during one of the more difficult times in our history, and worked tirelessly to bridge what seemed to be intractable differences among our communities and ourselves."

Mr. O'Brien credited Ms. Roessel not only with pushing forward the replacement of the Islander, but with championing private high-speed and traditional ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard.

"Finally, one of Cassie's greatest gifts to us was her humanity," Mr. O'Brien said. "We all knew that she genuinely cared for everyone she represented from her adopted home of Martha's Vineyard, as well as for every one of us here at her adopted SSA family. All of her actions were based upon fundamental Island values and principles of fairness.

"While we have learned so much from her these past three years, we are still acutely aware that Cassie has been taken away from us far too soon," he said. "Our heartfelt sympathies go out to her fiancé, Nelson Smith, her family, and her many beloved friends."

Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel first got to know her through her volunteer work on behalf of the Vineyard Haven harbor.

"She was indefatigable and relentless and made us get it right," Mr. Israel said. "At times, it was distracting. At times, I admired her tenacity."

Brendan O'Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, where she worked for a time, remembered Ms. Roessel as "a very talented, exuberant person. She really threw herself into the work 100 per cent. We'll miss her very much."

Aase Jones, assistant to the Tisbury town administrator, recalled that she was "full of energy. Smart. She had lots of energy to give. She wanted to get involved."

Ms. Jones also said Ms. Roessel had a strong personality that didn't always jibe with everyone.

"She was fun to be around," Ms. Jones said. "I think she liked the limelight. She liked the attention. When she came on the SSA, she was like a breath of fresh air to that board."

Jonathan Revere of West Tisbury, a friend of Ms. Roessel's had just seen her a few days before at the bench in front of the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven. Ms. Roessel was ebullient, he recalls, and they talked about getting together with a mutual friend.

"She was smart. She was funny," Mr. Revere said. "She went into this position [the SSA seat] of endless grief, and maintained her composure. She always was on the side of the fair and the right. I'm really sorry she's gone."

Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington recalled how Ms. Roessel stepped onto the SSA stage.

"She just sort of came out of nowhere," Mr. Turkington said. "She was bubbly, enthusiastic and worldly in an interesting way, and she was very enthused about walking into this maelstrom.

"The Steamship Authority is the hardest of hardball politics, especially then. The awfulness of the whole issue was at its peak back then. She did really well with it . . . I will miss her."

Ronald H. Rappaport, a former Vineyard SSA governor, also testified to the challenge posed by the seat.

"Being the Vineyard representative on the Steamship Authority is the most difficult job in the Steamship Authority and is the most difficult political job on the Vineyard," Mr. Rappaport said. "There are so many divergent points of view, you have the county commissioners and the town officials. Everybody who rides the boat is an expert.

"Cassie gave it everything she had and she did her best, and that's all we can ask of anyone," he added.

Mr. Israel recalled the tense meeting in 2001 when the county commissioners met the Vineyard's next SSA representative. Ms. Roessel, on her own, had put her name in the hat for the slot. The meeting came at a time when the question of New Bedford ferry service had politically split the Island in two.

"You could have cut the air with a knife," Mr. Israel said. "She was loose and relaxed and smiling. She gave good answers in the interview." The commission voted 4-3 to name her the Vineyard representative.

"She certainly was one of a kind," Mr. Israel said. "One of the things I admired about her, while I didn't always agree with her, is that she was true to her own beliefs and self. She was not so concerned about the public perception. She also had a sense of perspective about political things and always maintained good cheer, which I find hard to do myself, so I admire that."