Len Butler remembers the first time he and his wife Mallory drove up to Gay Head. It was a gray February day with blustery winds, but the light in the lighthouse was on and they fell in love with the place. Six months later they moved to the Vineyard and took up residence in the tiny town at the westernmost edge of the Island.
That was 43 years ago. There were 75 registered voters in the town which was still named Gay Head. And every night Mr. Butler and his young family went to sleep by the sweep of the Gay Head Light.
“You come up here on a horrible night or we would look out the window and see the light,” Mr. Butler said on a recent breezy, blue-sky May day over looking the famous clay cliffs. “It would be a very calming effect for us and our children. I could imagine for people at sea they could see that light and know they were home.”
In those days the lighthouse had plenty of land around it. His oldest daughter was married beneath the lighthouse 10 years ago.
“It struck me when I came up here a year ago and realized the spot where she stood to get married is not there anymore,” he said. “It’s eroded and gone over the edge. It really struck home.”
Today Mr. Butler is a quiet leader in the cause to save the Gay Head Light. He is chairman of the building committee that is overseeing plans to relocate the historic tower that now stands just 46 feet from the edge of a rapidly eroding cliff.
These days Mr. Butler often walks the base of the cliffs with a tape measure to keep tabs on the ever-shrinking distance between the lighthouse and the closest point of the cliff. This winter wasn’t as bad as previous years, Mr. Butler said, and he estimates the lighthouse has about a year left. If the money can be raised and logistical issues come together as planned, the lighthouse will be moved in the spring of 2015.
In his more than 40 years in town, Mr. Butler said he has always has stayed away from town politics but felt drawn to the lighthouse cause.
“When I heard they were forming a committee I thought it was a good chance to give back to the town that has meant so much to us all of these years,” he said. “We all have our differences but this is something that nobody wants to see this fall into the sea.”
He has overseen geological studies and studies of erosion rates, helped solicit bids for moving the lighthouse and consulted with neighboring Nantucket where a similar group moved the Sankaty Light in 2007. In his professional life he works as a project manager and site supervisor for Island contractor John Early. In his free time he likes to be at the beach with his boogie board. But there’s not much of that at the moment.
What began as an advisory role on the lighthouse project has turned into practically a full-time job. This summer he will manage federal, state and local permits, archeological surveys and be there to watch workers from International Chimney, the company that will move the lighthouse, cantilever themselves down the lighthouse to do structural tests.
Mr. Butler said he has always been fascinated by the beauty and power of the cliffs. Born in Kentucky and raised in Caldwell, N.J., he and Mallory moved to the Vineyard after graduating from Rutgers University.
“The town embraced us,” he recalled. “I was one of the few non-Indians here and I was warmly accepted by all the Vanderhoops, we knew all of their kids. Buddy’s my age and we practically grew up together. I was only 21 when I came here.”
He still remembers when geologist Clifford Kaye presented a comprehensive erosion study of the cliffs in the 1970s. He became fascinated by the geology of the cliffs from then on.
“The Army Corps of Engineers came up with this crazy idea to build an offshore barrier island and spray the cliffs with a plastic material, and Clifford Kaye said no,” Mr. Butler recalled. “He said the whole thing is about the groundwater. Over 50 years ago he knew that was the case here.”
A recent study by a U.S. Geological Survey geologist pointed to trapped groundwater as a key source of the erosion.
The town changed its name from Gay Head to Aquinnah in 1997.
“I’m still not over the name change,” Mr. Butler admitted. “I’m a Gay Header as far as I’m concerned. It’s been tough to get used to, I have to catch myself sometimes.”
But he recognized that the town has changed over the years. Some of the divisiveness has mellowed.
“I stayed out of politics and kept all of my friends,” he laughed. “But always felt I should be giving something back and this is it, this is my chance. My goal was to help save this for our children and our children’s children and everyone to enjoy and feel the same warmth and safety that this gives everybody.”
Mr. Butler credited his fellow committee members.
“They are so hard working and tireless, we’ve accomplished so much in such a small period of time,” he said. “It’s an incredible amount of work but a lot of hands are really helping out and I think it something the town can be proud of. I certainly am.”