Philip J. (Jeffrey) Norton Jr., the longtime Edgartown town moderator who had led town meetings with a deft hand and dry wit for 43 years, died Saturday night at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital after an extended illness. He was 84.

His death was confirmed by his son Jeffrey Norton 3rd.

Mr. Norton presiding over his last annual town meeting in April 2018. — Mark Alan Lovewell

Mr. Norton was an Edgartown native and longtime attorney who had practiced law on Martha’s Vineyard for decades and was active in community affairs. He served as a Dukes County commissioner in the 1970s.

But he was best known for his role as town moderator, an elected position he held from 1976 to 2018, when he finally hung up his gavel.

Long a familiar presence on the stage of the majestic Old Whaling Church where town meetings are held, he had a somewhat boyish style that the Gazette took note of in a 1984 story. “He never uses the gavel, except to tap it absently in the palm of one hand. For Jeff Norton, a gavel is not necessary for control,” the newspaper wrote.

“Jeff Norton gave a soul to our town meeting,” selectman Arthur Smadbeck told the Gazette for a story in 2018.

“One thing that I’ve watched over the years is how patient he is and how much he’s invested in the democratic process. You’ll never ever see Jeff shut anybody down. You want to talk about it, you can talk about it, ” Mr. Smadbeck said.

And while he always gave voters plenty of room to talk, Mr. Norton also knew just when to rein them in; his town meetings rarely ran beyond one night, even when the warrant articles stretched on for pages.

“He has an incredible ability to sense the mood of the meeting,” longtime town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport told the Gazette in 2018. “He’s able to defuse the tensest of debates and discussions with humor . . . he’s respectful, there’s a warmth that’s created by the familiarity.

Mr. Norton’s father Philip J. Norton also served as town moderator from 1956 to 1965.

At their meeting Monday, the three Edgartown select board members paused to remember the iconic moderator.

“I’d just like to say that Jeff was a wonderful moderator,” Margaret Serpa began. “He grew up in Edgartown, knew everybody, always in town, always friendly, would reach you on the street and always answered any questions you had.”

Board member Arthur Smadbeck added his reflections.

“I was fortunate enough to meet him when I moved here in 1990,” Mr. Smadbeck said. “He was very kind, I was nervous as hell going into his office the first time to ask his advice on something. His wit was beyond compare and his advice was always very funny, or at least to me it was funny and yet very valuable. He was very generous as a mentor to a youngish guy coming in to ask his advice on anything, for real estate, for politics, for anything about the town. He was just so kind and I will miss him – I do miss him – tremendously.”

Michael Donaroma echoed the sentiments.

“I can mirror everything that Art just said,” Mr. Donaroma said. “When Jeff was moderator, we never had to go back a second night for anything no matter how long the meetings were. No matter how controversial a subject might be, he always had a funny joke or comment. I think it was because he knew everybody in town and he knew their childhoods, he knew what they complained about at the last meeting. He kept a sense of humor so we could get things done . . . you’d go into his office and he’d say ‘No, never gonna work Mike, never gonna work.’ But it always worked. He and his family have done so much for the town.”

Following Mr. Norton’s retirement, Island attorney Sean Murphy was elected to fill the seat. Mr. Murphy died in 2020, and was succeeded by Steve Ewing, who remains moderator today.

Also the town poet laureate, Mr. Ewing read aloud a tribute poem for Mr. Norton at the 2018 annual town meeting:

“He grips the podium like the wooden wheel of a loaded cargo schooner, comfortable yet firm as he steers us through another night . . . ”

The longtime moderator thanked the roomful of voters.

“As you all probably know I enjoyed doing this. As I told somebody, it was something to do. I’ve got to be here on town meeting night anyway, so I might as well do something. I hope you are all as kind to the next moderator as you have been to me.”

Mr. Norton is survived by his wife Jane B. Norton of Edgartown, sons Jeffrey Norton 3rd and Andrew Norton and their spouses, and three grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for next year.

Updated to include remarks from the Edgartown select board Monday. Brooke Kushwaha contributed reporting.