Cornelia Mendenhall of West Tisbury, who marked her 90th birthday this summer with family and friends, died suddenly on Friday, Oct. 18, just before she was to receive an award for her tireless volunteerism and advocacy. Nell or Nellie, as she was called, was about to receive the Spirit of the Vineyard Award given by Hospice of Martha's Vineyard, an award she accepted only if the organization made clear that it was given for the many Islanders who display the "cooperative spirit of the Island."
That she died at an Island event, after driving herself there from her Indian Hill home, seemed particularly fitting. Nell Mendenhall did not take kindly to any fuss about her which meant that she was often found on a step ladder tending to peeling paint, a burnt-out light bulb or a broken tree limb. There was no stopping her.
Cornelia Baker Mendenhall was born in Englewood, N.J., on July 28, 1912. She was graduated from the Brimmer and May School, and then Vassar College in 1935 with a major in biology. It was as a student at Brimmer and May that she first visited a classmate's family home in Edgartown.
In 1938, the year she married Thomas C. Mendenhall, she introduced her husband to the Vineyard. They were on-Island for the great hurricane that year, and she recalled the water reaching as high as the Kelley House.
Many summers on the Vineyard followed when the three Mendenhall daughters, Nealie, Mary and Bethany, were young. Most were spent in a camp at the top of Abel's Hill in Chilmark where clamming, rowing and blueberry picking were the mainstays of a summer day.
"Fifteen blissful years," is how Mrs. Mendenhall once recalled those days, "when all you had to do was open the door, make the beds and 30 minutes later you were on the beach."
Those summer outings became family traditions which Mrs. Mendenhall happily passed on to her granddaughters, Anne and Kate Small. There were day trips to The Trustees of Reservations and Lambert's Cove beaches, with lots of books in tow for all ages.
Because her husband spent his career in academia, first at Yale University where Mr. Mendenhall was master of Berkeley, a residential undergraduate college, and later at Smith College in Northampton where he was president for 17 years, the Vineyard became home base. And in 1962, they bought the 19th-century Indian Hill home which they retired to permanently in 1975. Mr. Mendenhall died in 1998.
At both Yale and Smith, but particularly in Northampton, Mrs. Mendenhall took on the duties which came with her husband's positions with precision. She was warm, welcoming and organized, even if the family Dandie Dinmont terrier (there were four through the years) was occasionally problematic. So, at Yale, there were Wednesday night beer parties for students and at Smith, she and her husband invited students in every Sunday for breakfast.
No matter where she was, or what her position, if there was an issue or cause she felt drawn to, she gave it her all. At the height of protests around the Vietnam War, for example, Mrs. Mendenhall was arrested along with many others, including the president of Amherst College, at a march outside the Air Force base in western Massachusetts.
Beginning in New Haven and continuing in Northampton and the Vineyard, Mrs. Mendenhall was a member of each community's version of the Want to Know Club. The club is structured around a theme for a given year, with members tackling a subject and submitting a report to the group. It was an assignment Mrs. Mendenhall took seriously, researching both obscure and popular material, and approaching her subject as an academic would.
The out-of-doors always beckoned Nell Mendenhall and much of her volunteer activity centered on land preservation. She was instrumental in starting the Vineyard's recycling program and hazardous waste collection; she was an early and vocal supporter of the land bank; she and Mr. Mendenhall helped expand Cedar Tree Neck Wildlife Sanctuary by donating acres of their land and persuading neighbors to do the same; and she strengthened and promoted the conservation efforts of the Vineyard Conservation Society and the Sherriff's Meadow Foundation.
The longest-serving board member of the Vineyard Conservation Society, both past and current executive directors valued her persistence, knowledge and approach to the work.
"It's very easy in this field to get disappointed, and Nellie had such an endless source of energy. I really appreciated her steadiness, tenacity and strength over the long haul," said Brendan O'Neill, the current director.
Added Bob Woodruff: "I remember her at meetings and she would be quiet for an hour or two, and then she would speak, usually very briefly. But when she did, it was always the essence of what needed to be done or undone."
Mrs. Mendenhall also pushed the economic studies and positions of the League of Women Voters of Martha's Vineyard, and little delighted her more than a new, young, enthusiastic member. In 2001, she received a letter from the national league president recognizing her 50 years of service.
A lifelong liberal who tolerated just about everything except politicians who pigeon-holed people or threatened the environment, she believed in government participation from public forums to West Tisbury town meetings. She rarely missed any.
While not an enthusiastic gardener, she was a robust clearer of all weeds, dead wood, fallen limbs and other obstacles around their Indian Hill home. There was no gas power saw at the Mendenhall's, just an ungainly two-man saw that Nell and Tom used to supply their wood stoves. Storm windows were her forte, and up and down they came through the years. She recently said that she particularly missed glazing the storms and applying a fresh coat of white paint.
The Spirit of the Vineyard Award she was to receive last week was not the first recognition of her civic activities. The league awarded her with one of the Creative Living Awards for 1993, citing her as "an effective catalyst in numerous efforts to uphold or advance the physical and social health of this Island."
A letter written to nominate Mrs. Mendenhall for the award noted "Nellie Mendenhall's remarkable spirit, which energizes others by force of its warmth and selflessness, and sets a rare example of creative living at its best."
Nonetheless, competition was relished in the Mendenhall household. Croquet, in particular, was a tradition that began with Nell's mother who "was a superb player," said her daughter, Nealie Small. There were tournaments on Labor Day weekend and on all terrain, the bumpier and hillier the better. "Mother's competitive energies came out in croquet. She was an excellent player, she loved to win, and she particularly liked beating Daddy which she always did."
Scrabble was another game played with intensity. And in those first 10 to 15 years on-Island, there were the weekly games of charades with the Scotts, Caldwells, Treats, Maleys, Leggetts, and Stutzs. "Nellie was wonderful at charades and very funny," remember's Flavia Stutz. Asked once if the teams ever changed, Mrs. Mendenhall was quick to respond: "Never. Why would we? We always won."
There were long, ambling walks through the up-Island woods and beaches that were launched at Indian Hill. Bitter cold was never a deterrent, nor, apparently, was any sense of direction. It was all in the discovery. More than one walk ended after dark with numb fingers and toes, and only the promise of Nell's strong English tea or instant coffee led the group to a strong finish.
Later, there were books on tape to accompany Mrs. Mendenhall on her daily, 45-minute laps around the tennis court to keep limber in mind and body. And not just any books, but Greek mythology, the Bible, the history of music and American history. Never one to be idle, Mrs. Mendenhall always had crossword puzzles cut out from newspapers and stashed in an envelope in her purse should she have to wait for an appointment or a ferry.
And in recent years, there were movie trips with her neighbor and friend, Annie Parker. Matinees were preferred, but "if we had to go at night to see a movie we wanted to see, we did," said Mrs. Parker. It wasn't all high brow. "Hobbling out" after seeing Training Day, Mrs. Parker recalled, "we laughed because I'm sure people wondered what we were doing there. But we didn't censor anything." The film American Beauty was another favorite.
Sharing her husband's commitment to the Martha's Vineyard Hospital, Mrs. Mendenhall made beds and ran errands while her husband sat on the board of directors. She was also active in the pursuit of affordable housing on the Island, and rented their guest cottage year-round at a rate young Islanders could afford. As a result, many of their tenants through the years became home owners.
When she arrived at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center last Friday to accept the Spirit of the Vineyard award, she asked to pay the $5 entry fee. Her request was politely rejected.
Cornelia Mendenhall is survived by her two daughters, Bethany Mendenhall of California, and Cornelia Small of New York city; her sons in law, Charles Lave, Jonathan Small and Christopher Cooley; her granddaughters, Anne and Kate Small; her nephews, David Baker of Medford, Ore., and Dr. Sidney Baker of Weston, Conn. Another daughter, Mary Cooley, died some years ago.
Her remains have been donated, at her request, to the Harvard Medical School. A memorial service will be held sometime in the future. Donations may be made in her name to the Island Affordable Housing Fund, Inc., of Vineyard Haven.