With the end of December comes the annual temptation to sum up the calendar year. But if the past 12 months offer any instruction, endings are just a prelude to new beginnings. In 2011, projects that lay dormant for years were revived (and sometimes reviled). Noble works sunk by a leaky economy were given new life. Coastlines eroded and beaches formed anew. Heroes returned. Protests resumed. Events seemed to transpire in a kind of cosmic roundabout.
Nationally as well as locally, economists are still laboring to uncover green shoots in the debris of a recession now entering its fourth year. But many of the events of the Vineyard last year followed their own pattern.
Perhaps no town experienced a whiplash of fortune as drastic as Oak Bluffs, which began the year with disaster. In January the Massachusetts Department of Revenue came calling, ordering the town to immediately slash more than $200,000 from its budget after rosy revenue projections proved to be starkly at odds with reality.
“The good times are not going to come for a couple years,” selectman Ron DiOrio predicted, and for the first few months of the year it appeared he was right. Three frantic town meetings later, a round of late tax bills, and a botched ballot question that saw voters turn down nearly $500,000 in overrides, voters swept two new selectmen into office at the annual town election in mid-April. In turn the newly-configured board of selectmen swept out the town administrator, his exit hastened by a procurement scandal that resulted in a harsh rebuke from the state’s attorney general’s office.
Town administrator Michael Dutton resigned under pressure in July.
With a town budget still in disarray, the honeymoon was quickly over for the new selectmen. Things were tried and abandoned, including a cost-cutting plan to eliminate most of the staff at the town council on aging that drew a crowd of angry seniors to a selectmen’s meeting. The financial problems persisted.
The savior would come later in the form of a fresh-faced interim town administrator, Robert Whritenour, just off the boat from a tumultuous 10-year tenure in Falmouth. In November Mr. Whritenour drew a rare standing ovation at a special town meeting after a presentation on the town budget and a promise to set the town on firm financial footing. The town is now on pace to get its tax bills out on time, and as the year drew to a close the prevailing mood in Oak Bluffs was one of optimism.
The town also revived the roundabout project at the blinker intersection, which awakened a sleeping giant of critics from one end of the Island to the other. In June the West Tisbury selectmen stepped in to refer the project to Martha’s Vineyard Commission for review. Opponents assembled petitions containing thousands of signatures against the roundabout. State contractors tried to persuade an unyielding public of the project’s merits (“It’s not a rotary!”). In the end the commission voted to approve the roundabout in a series of close votes. But it did not end there. Edgartown and West Tisbury have appealed the commission’s decision in superior court. So the story of the roundabout continues in 2012.
There were other less controversial revivals this year. At the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, the original 1843 bell was restored to a grand state of luster that will allow it to ring throughout the town for many years to come. The work on the 1,590-pound bell was done by Edgartown welder and master craftsman Greg Blaine, using a foundry in Bridgewater and a pattern maker in New Hampshire.
The Field Gallery in West Tisbury will begin a new life under the stewardship of the town of West Tisbury, which bought the landmark gallery on the green from the Maley family.
Rupert the Rooster, tormentor or mascot of West Chop, depending on whom you ask, was spirited away to an Island farm (location undisclosed) where he will begin a new life.
West Tisbury fence viewers, a board seemingly lifeless for centuries, were called into action for the first time in living memory.
The defunct lobster hatchery in Oak Bluffs will be reborn as a shellfish hatchery next year after receiving a $250,000 boost from the Division of Marine Fisheries.
From the ashes of the Coast Guard boathouse in Menemsha, a new one has been designed — this one by the architects of the Kingdom Tower in Dubai. (And from Chilmark selectman Frank Fenner’s horrified reaction, apparently built to the same specifications. “It’s mammoth,” he said when drawings were unveiled.)
In Vineyard Haven the revival of a cherished Island institution, the Nathan Mayhew Seminars, is underway at the enthusiastic hand of two Island businessmen, Chuck Hughes and Rubin Cronig.
It was a different story for the Denniston House in Oak Bluffs, the Island’s first black church. After an eleventh-hour fund-raising effort failed this summer the Martha’s Vineyard Housing Fund — which had planned an ambitious $5 million plan to convert the property to a mix of affordable housing, artist work space and an office for the NAACP — first suffered foreclosure, eventually followed by a bank auction where the building sold for $500,000 to an Island architect. Chuck Sullivan, who has been involved in a number of historic renovations around the Island, has kept mum about his plans for the building.
Other losses seemed more final. While the Island struggled with its terrestrial human problems, Chappaquiddick silently surrendered to the Atlantic, losing a full 75 feet of beach by the end of summer. The fallout from Hurricane Irene accounted for 22 feet alone.
By the storm’s end, the former Swan Pond on Chappaquiddick existed only on Google Earth and the Wasque parking lot serviced only amphibious vehicles. The loss of land to the sea was dramatic and unsparing, not least to fishermen who mourned the fatal fall of their favorite surf-casting spots.
There was a crowd to cast their reels from Chappaquiddick this fall to compete in the Nixon family’s third American Heroes Saltwater Challenge, a fishing retreat for wounded combat veterans. Disabled Air Force veteran Emanuel Thompson made headlines, hoisting his 34.72-pound striped bass at derby headquarters, briefly taking the lead in the derby.
The headlines were not all upbeat for veterans, though, as another year passed without primary care for Vineyard vets who use the services of the VA. In November, a group of veterans blasted the federal agency at a meeting at the American Legion hall in Vineyard Haven. Cape and Islands state Rep. Timothy Madden said he expects the service to return to the Island in the new year. But some veterans couldn’t wait for the government to lend a hand. Tom Rancich and Elliot Adler, Island veterans, led the cause to help Jared Meader, a two-time Iraq war veteran who was struggling to pay off medical bills from brain surgery, fend off home foreclosure and support a family of five. Mr. Meader was shocked and humbled by the generosity of a community that held a fundraiser at the VFW hall in Oak Bluffs in his honor.
The community also rallied behind its high school sports teams, among them:
• An arrhythmia-inducing Vineyard high school hoops team whose postseason run ended in a double overtime heartbreaker one game short of the state championship.
• A Cinderella football team that kept the Island Cup at home (doubly sweet coming at Nantucket).
• An EAC-winning boys’ soccer team that was nothing short of spectacular.
And early in the year a new Vineyard sport was launched: swimming. The Island’s first competitive swim team, the Makos took to the YMCA pool under the auspices of coach Leslie Craven.
But the shark sightings did not end there. The Martha’s Vineyard Sharks, the Vineyard’s first amateur summer baseball league, was a home run, attracting thousands of fans of all ages to the regional high school ballpark.
In other shark-related news it was another summer of great white hype, with an exploding seal population turning waters around the Vineyard into prime shark-feeding habitat. A springtime sighting of a shark kept some wary sunbathers on their towels.
But it was in fact the Vineyard’s smallest organisms that caused the biggest stir on the beaches this summer. A rash of erratic but high bacteria readings from beaches all over the Island confounded public health officials and beachgoers alike, who saw their favorite spots open and close repeatedly. As different Island laboratories, each with exacting quality controls, measured different levels of bacteria for the same beaches, the mystery only grew. Single-celled menaces in the form of cochlodinium and prorocentrum also made life difficult for Island shellfish and their caretakers, as outbreaks of the algae in Cape Pogue and Lagoon Pond prompted the emergency rescue of millions of baby quahaugs and scallops.
Despite the unwelcome invaders, the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group reported one of most productive summers yet, doubling its bounty of bay scallop seed, with quahaugs and oysters not far behind.
It was a hard year for dogs. In April Chilmark officials placed a bounty on the head of a Cairn terrier after it killed four hens and maimed a cat. In Oak Bluffs, which had no animal control officer due to above-mentioned fiscal constraints, selectmen put a $200 bond on a roaming pit bull. In December, West Tisbury selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter called for one mutt’s head after it killed a neighbor’s ducks (the dog was instead exiled from town). A long, resource-intensive search for a Chilmark black Labrador named Olive riveted the community but ended sadly when the body of Olive was later found.
And in West Tisbury voters complicated their relationship with man’s best friend, voting to ban dogs at Lambert’s Cove beach this summer.
But there was good dog news too. Enter Buster, the Oak Bluffs police force’s new drug-sniffing black Labrador. Buster had a coming-out party of sorts earlier this month at the M.V. Chowder Company, where he demonstrated his ability to detect minute amounts of marijuana. He can also find missing people.
As the Vineyard welcomed Buster it also bid a somber adieu to another working dog. In November the Coast Guard station Menemsha held a burial at sea for its beloved yellow Labrador mascot, petty officer Bridger. The Gazette story was marked by heartbreaking understatement, reporting that Bridger “died on Sept. 22 from complications of old age. He was 12.”
Other Vineyarders enjoyed longer earthly sojourns but their loss was felt profoundly. Eminent Island historian Arthur Railton, Camp Jabberwocky founder Helen Lamb, longtime Dukes County sheriff Huck Look, West Tisbury conservationist Edwin Woods, poet, woodcarver and sportsman Basil Welch, seaweed collage artist Rose Treat, playwright Jon Lipsky, inveterate Chilmark duck and deer hunter Daniel Bryant, Tisbury school industrial arts teacher Michael Ovios, agricultural fair fixture Jane Newhall, and beloved family doctor Russell Hoxsie all died in 2011.
Others, long-passed, might have been horrified at certain developments. Undoubtedly one would be Island character Craig Kingsbury, whose iconic hand-painted “Hoo-rah for Bill” sign on State Road was removed by the Tisbury zoning inspector.
There was much hoo-rahing again for another President this summer, as Barack Obama and his family spent their August vacation on the Vineyard for the third straight year. And as they are wont to do, Islanders took it all in stride, as the Presidential motorcade shuttled among Island golf courses, beaches and the Summer White House at Blue Heron Farm. Mr. Obama’s public appearances were brief.
And if the Obamas return to Blue Heron Farm next year, they will be renting from new owners. In November the property sold for $21.9 million to British architect Lord Norman Foster and his wife, Lady Elena Foster. The Fosters have reportedly said they do not intend to rent the property.
The year saw its share of bad news: a machete attack in Vineyard Haven that left one man dead and another awaiting trial, a drowning at Norton Point, a rash of prescription drug-fueled burglaries, a well-known Edgartown attorney who faced criminal charges over misappropriated escrow money from real estate sales. Edward W. (Peter) Vincent has temporarily lost his license to practice law.
The antidote to such headlines, though, could only be a story of found buried treasure. In a scenario that would try the credulity of even the most avid Hardy Boys readers, in June a troop of picnicking Vineyard Cub Scouts unearthed a World War II-era treasure box filled with gold, jewelry, knives and a Civil-War era revolver.
Finally, it was a year for spontaneous heroism and Island firsts. Aquinnah Wampanoag Tiffany Smalley graduated from Harvard — the first Vineyard Wampanoag to do so since Harvard’s first Native American, Vineyarder Caleb Cheeshateaumuck (class of 1665). High school senior Evan Hall landed a Gates Millenium Scholarship to carry him to the Berklee College of Music.
West Tisbury School principal and Marine Corps Col. Michael Halt returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan and received a hero’s welcome from his school and community. And 13-year-old Rasmus Sayre of Vineyard Haven, who veered deliberately off course during a tight windsurfing championship race in Cozumel to rescue a competitor who was adrift and without a life preserver on the high seas, received a young hero’s commendation from his town selectmen.
But in an interview with the Gazette after the incident, the young sailing prodigy quickly shrugged off the mantle of a hero, saying simply: “There is nothing greater than saving the life of a person.”