When you consider that Tom Dresser started his own newspaper in the fifth grade, it’s less of a stretch to imagine that he has written nearly a book a year since 2008. His latest, Women of Martha’s Vineyard, chronicles some of the most well-known and some lesser known women who share a connection to the Island. Some were born here and others didn’t wash ashore until they were middle-aged, but all called the Vineyard home.
His latest book is Mr. Dresser’s fifth with the History Press. He previously tackled the 1940s East Chop murder of Clara Smith, a history of African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard and a history of the Wampanoags on the Island. His love of the Island comes into play as the topics of his work come to fruition. He is currently working on another Island book, a look at World War II on the Vineyard, a collaboration with Edgartown writer and educator Herb Foster, and author and former longtime high school soccer and basketball coach Jay Schofield. They plan to research the role the Vineyard played during preparations for the war.
Mr. Dresser said he first attempted to write a fictional account with his book Mystery on the Vineyard, but found “the facts kept getting in the way.” Now he couples his love of writing with his love of history. He uses the files at the Vineyard Gazette, research at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and other local resources to produce his books. “The best, though, is when you can interview someone who knew the person, or who was there at the time,” Mr. Dresser said.
Women of Martha’s Vineyard is a series of 15 brief biographies that give the reader a glimpse into life on the Vineyard through the stories of some of the women who lived at least part of their lives on the Island. Katharine Cornell, Lillian Hellman and Patricia Neal are subjects, along with Helen Lamb, the founder of Camp Jabberwocky, Helen Vanderhoop Manning, a Wampanoag and educator who taught in the little red school house in Aquinnah, and Gladys Widdiss, the former head of the Gay Head Wampanoag tribe.
Gladys Widdiss “epitomized the lifestyle, culture and heritage of her tribe,” Mr. Dresser writes in the book. She was born in the Thomas Manning Homestead in Aquinnah and led the tribe to achieve federal recognition. She also was known for her pottery made of the clay from the Cliffs. Her story is a glimpse of life growing up on the Island at a time when there was no electricity and children managed to entertain themselves with whatever was at hand.
Nancy Whiting was one of five women who traveled from the Vineyard to North Carolina to support African Americans in 1964 as they registered to vote. The women took part in a demonstration against unfair housing practices and found themselves arrested and jailed. The story goes they called home for bail money and were released the next day. Ms. Whiting worked for social justice throughout her life, the book reveals, and settled on the Vineyard as a single mother at age 29. She kept journals throughout her life and became the West Tisbury town librarian.
During a talk at the Vineyard Haven Library last week, Mr. Dresser said Ms. Whiting was noted for abolishing fines at the library. “There were so many books at the library that there was no room so she figured if people took the books out and didn’t have to return them there would be more space,” he said. “If they needed the book back, they would call them.”
The 15 women covered in Women of the Vineyard are only a few of the extraordinary women who share a connection with the Vineyard, Mr. Dresser said. “Some I already knew about but others I didn’t really know much about,” he said. “My real coup was getting Rose Styron to share her story in the foreward of the book. I just called her up and she said she had never really done anything like it before. She talked about how the Vineyard was a place of solace for her and how comfortable she feels here.”
The Vineyard has become the same for Mr. Dresser, he said.
He reconnected with his wife Joyce in 1995 at their 30-year high school reunion in central Massachusetts.
“She invited me down for a weekend and I fell in love with the Island and I fell in love with the woman,” he said. “I spent two years commuting and moved here full time in 1997.”
His wife settled here in the late 1960s, Mr. Dresser said, joking that she had nine friends named Pat and he had to try to keep them all straight.
“Now I have as many friends as she does.”
Women of the Vineyard is available at Island bookstores and through the author’s website, thomasdresser.com. He will talk about the book at the Tisbury Senior Center on May 28, at the Oak Bluffs Library on June 4 and the Chilmark Library on June 12.