Conrad Neumann, the deeply rooted Chilmark native, distinguished oceanographer and poet, died Monday in Durham, N.C., of complications following a stroke. He was 85 and had been a well-known figure on the Vineyard all his life, especially in Menemsha where he took his place on the summertime benches occupied by fishermen and other salty characters.

An oceanographer who had traveled the world, he was a professor emeritus of geological oceanography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“I could read the sea,” he said in a 2017 interview with the Gazette about a book a poetry he had just published at the time. “That’s part of my nature . . . the surface of the earth is a beautiful movie.”

Mr. Neumann in Menemsha last summer. — Albert O. Fischer 3rd

A. Conrad Neumann was born on the Vineyard in 1933. His grandmother’s first cousin was Lucy Vincent. “My mother swam here each summer with intellectuals and artists from New York,” he told the Gazette. “That had a big influence.”

He lived in Chilmark and attended the Menemsha School and Tisbury High School. After two years of high school on the Island, he transferred to Bayside High in New York so he could attend Queens College and later Brooklyn College, where he graduated with a bachelor of science in geology in 1955. He obtained a master’s degree in oceanography from Texas A&M in 1958.

In the Gazette interview he recalled a high school guidance counselor who tried to dissuade him from oceanography. “He flipped through his plastic notebook and saw no job between obstetrician and optometrist,” Mr. Nuemann said.

But he also recalled the advice offered by his Island fishing mentor Carlton Mayhew: “Keep your own counsel.”

After obtaining his master’s degree, he worked for three years at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and shipped out on the Atlantis I to the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean and the North and South Atlantic. He enrolled at Lehigh University for a Ph.D. in geology in 1963, and went on to do marine geological research at the University of Miami until 1970.

From 1970 to 1972 he served at the National Science Foundation in Washington D.C., after which he moved to the University of North Carolina where he taught oceanography and did research on deep-sea deposits, coral reefs, sea-level and climate change. He used the research submersible Alvin on 33 dives, some as deep as two miles.

He retired from teaching in 2003.

He and his wife Jane were longtime continuous summer residents of Chilmark and Menemsha and lived most of the year in Durham, N.C. In summers they ran a table at the Chilmark flea market.

His sister Jane Slater is the former longtime Chilmark columnist for the Gazette.

Poetry and storytelling were part of Mr. Neumann’s nature.

“Years ago I asked an old Island doctor why I kept talking and telling stories,” he told the Gazette in the 2017 interview. “He told me ‘You’re nervous and should hang out with other nervous people.’ Guess he felt it might make me talk less because I’d see the error of my ways or wouldn’t get a word in. He called it oral hypertension. I turned it into poetry.”

He said his introduction to poetry came from his grandfather, Churchill Dwight Gilmore, who read Longfellow to his grandchildren at bedtime.

In his 2017 book Up-Island Poems, one poem titled Grampy is a tribute to his grandfather.

He had an enduring sense of humor.

“It’s hard to look at yourself and all that’s around you without a sense of humor,” Mr. Neumann said. “People tell me that’s what’s keeping me alive. I’m one of the few people who tell jokes in the hospital.”

Friends who visited him just before his death this week said he was alert and asked about fishing, Menemsha and other Vineyard news.

In addition to his wife and sister, he is survived by a daughter Jennifer Noble and sons Cris Neumann and Jonathan Neumann, and six grandchildren.

There will be no funeral. His ashes will be interred at Abel’s Hill cemetery in Chilmark.

A memorial service is being planned for the Vineyard sometime this coming summer.

Donations in his memory can be made to the Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust, P.O. Box 96, Menemsha, MA 02552.

What follows is a poem from Mr/ Neumann’s 2017 collection titled Up-Island Poems.


I was born to water
on an Island in the sea.
The surf outside the window
each night put me to sleep.
Waves against the shore
rumbled to cobbles
on the stormy coast.
The tide murmured as it passed
the red nun in the channel.
The offshore boulders
sang to the surf.
All these sounds and sights of water
are a symphony to me —
a voice that still reminds me
I’m adrift without the sea.

— Conrad Neumann