From his earliest years, Michael Donaroma could not help but be aware of the bipolar, us and them, have and have not division of Martha's Vineyard society.

"My father left when I was two," the Edgartown businessman and selectman recalled this week, on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the nursery business which has carried him across to the have side of that social divide.

"My grandparents had a house on Silva Way they managed to pick up during or just after the Depression, so my brother and my mother and I lived there. In those days the old man didn't have to send any money and never did," he reflected.

"So both my mother and my grandmother, like a lot of people back then, did laundry. We'd wait for the summer people to show up and we would spring clean. I remember after school we'd open and clean up houses before the rich summer people would show up.


"Then you'd close the houses down in the fall and in the meantime do laundry. Ten cents for a pillow case, fifty cents for a sheet, an extra 10 cents if it was bleached. That's what a lot of people did, at least on my street."

Before he was 10, young Michael worked as a caddie at the Edgartown golf course, in the days when "you weren't supposed to make eye contact, and you certainly didn't talk to the golfer. You just carried the bag and kept quiet," he said.

"The only time I ever played tennis is when I climbed onto the tennis court and played baseball with tennis balls and a racquet because I didn't know anything about the game," he recalled.

"Now my son, a generation later, is playing golf on another course, Farm Neck, and the President of the United States is in front of him. That's a privilege I never had. Now there's free tennis for all the Island kids."

He tells the story not so much to underline his personal status as a self-made man as to defend his views about development on Martha's Vineyard. He begins and ends the story by repeating the same motto: "Growth isn't all bad."

That growth, and the new privileges, would not have happened without those wealthy seasonal visitors that many Island residents - particularly, in his view, the newer ones - seem to resent.

"They pay 80 per cent of Edgartown taxes, the summer residents, and they don't have a vote. Thank you very much," he said, with a characteristic chuckle.

He acknowledged the resentment of the ugly trophy houses and the difficulties of working people trying to get into the property market, but he said he can live with it. "If someone can afford to build a big house and come here two months out of the year and pay taxes for our schools . . . And you know it's also the land of opportunity; you can get off your ass and get a job - or two - while you're at it, you know."

You might expect a self-made man to have that view. He sure worked hard, although luck and connections played a part in his success too.


Mr. Donaroma by his own admission was not much of a student. "I was a jock in high school, coaches would send me to gym when there were tests," he recalled. He graduated during the Viet Nam War and needed to go to college in order to avoid the draft.

He made it into the University of Massachusetts on a scholarship for which the only prerequisite was that you had to graduate on the Vineyard and study something in the field of agriculture. He got in, not on the strength of his grades, but his experience. By age 16, he was already a golf course superintendent, because Alvin Strock, owner of the old Island Country Club, didn't want to pay for a full-time person after the previous superintendent quit.

At university, for the first time study was interesting. "Floriculture and herbaceous perennials and design and landscape and all that," he remembered. In 1971, at age 20 and qualified in agronomy, he returned to the Island planning to do more than tend golf greens.

He worked for awhile at a nursery and started his own landscaping business on the side.

"I started with my brother's pickup truck and my grandmother's lawn mower," he said.

In 1977, he opened his own nursery on Upper Main street in Edgartown with just one greenhouse with a flower shop in it.

This week, as he celebrates 30 years in business, he has 40 or 50 employees, and is planning a reunion of all the people who have worked at Donaromas through the years.

"It's a huge list," he said, "we're trying to put it together through payroll records and memory."

And after 30 years he admits he still loves the work. "It's a service business, so it's demanding. But once the customers are through yelling at you, you go out into the yard and it's you and the plants and the weather and the birds and the bees. It's a good job. There's an accomplishment to it. It transforms right in front of your eyes. And then from year to year it gets better. It gets age, it gets character," he said.

Stories tumble out. There are the gardens he's rescued and restored, the trees he has saved from being cut.

He sees no contradiction between this and his generally pro-development positions. Indeed he sees a commonality: planning, something he has been involved in one way or another for going on 20 years.

"I love this town, I grew up here and I liked the idea of planning," he said. "Landscape planning is about roads and walkways and paths and so on, so I went on the planning board. Little did I know it was really more about zoning and neighbors and height restrictions and stuff. But I got involved and we worked on the upper Main street master plan."

He is a little hazy on the dates, but was on the planning board about 12 years. From there he got onto the Martha's Vineyard Commission, which he initially thought was a "good board that had huge powers and big ability to really do some serious planning.

"I thought it would be a good connection, the zoning board, the planning board, the selectmen with the Martha's Vineyard Commission," he said, adding:

"I think the commission is a great thing and back then there were a lot of people who worked at putting it together and did a great job. They were trying to preserve the Island in its glory but at the same time do realistic planning for moving ahead."


But he said things changed. "While I was on it, it seemed to go in a direction of arrogance. People coming in with agendas, getting on the boards not because they saw the whole picture but because there was something they really wanted to stop.

"You know, you can't live in a big house. You can't have lawns or white trim. You can't leave your lights on anymore, can't have windows in the house, can't have cathedral ceilings anymore. They want to regulate everything, particularly energy use.

"Now, it's a great idea to pay attention to our energy consumption, but I think you do that through education and common sense. You don't tell everyone how to live in their homes."

He has another approach.

"You don't villainize every applicant, which I believe too many boards on the Island tend to do. An applicant comes in and wants something, that's when you get them, that's when you set the hook. That's when you sit down and say ‘okay, how does this serve the community, the town'."

He's been villainized himself, notably over his connections with the exclusive Field Club development in Katama.

He defends that project as one which might do something to bridge what he calls a disconnect between the year-round and seasonal people. Often, he said, he got the message from his high-end clients that they would like to have more contact with real Islanders.

There are of course few real Islanders could put up $100,000-plus to join the Field Club, but it's also true there are few places where the groups can mingle. And it's hard to argue with his view that the Vineyard's diverse human elements, from Hollywood to academe to Washington to fisher folk, should be encouraged to mix more.

These days Mr. Donaroma himself moves pretty easily across that divide. He doesn't do a lot of hobnobbing, he says, but he clearly enjoys the occasional dip into the diversity of the Vineyard. He recalled with a grin a big event last summer, at one of the harborfront trophy houses.

"There were philosophers, professors, big corporate people. And Island stumblebums like me, walkin' around with a pair of shorts and smoking a big cigar and talkin' to world people, you know?"

Really? He still thought of himself as a stumblebum?

He reconsidered, out of deference to the influence of his wife, partner and friend, Janice.

"Okay, she lifts me one notch above stumblebum," he said. "So I can rub elbows with the mucky mucks."

Such false modesty. Michael Donaroma has been sharper than most of the mucky mucks since he was their eight-year-old caddie. Sharp enough not to let it show.