Tom Osmers, the philosopher fisherman with a generous gift for oratory and oyster shucking whose status as a true Island character was confirmed with a nickname, The Codfather, died on Friday, March 12, surrounded by friends and family who loved him tremendously. He was 57.

He played piano and baseball all his life, entrancing people, especially women, wherever he went. But it was fishing on the Vineyard that Tom loved most. The longtime West Tisbury shellfish constable and advocate for sustainable fishing was inspired by fish and the literary masterpieces that romanticized life at sea. For Tom, fishing was more than just a way to make a living; it was living. At sea, Tom developed his philosophy of life, which he shared openly: “In fishing, as in life,” he’d say, “the worst snarls are the ones we create for ourselves.”

Even while undergoing treatment, Tom worked to establish the Dukes County Fisherman’s Association and ensure a place for the Vineyard in the new sectors fishery management system. He maintained his fishing permits and was working to create a permit bank to ensure commercial fishing would be available to young Islanders of future generations. He worked closely with the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish group to maintain the wellness of the ponds. In the past year, Tom remarked often, “I feel like I just got my wings in this fish oratory business,” he headed Vineyard protests to speak out for fishing families across New England against the injustices of the National Marine Fisheries Association. Tom was also an avid documentarian; he made many films that capture a life of fishing on Martha’s Vineyard.

In recent years, he took the microphone with Island musician Willy Mason (“Willy and I kind of crossed paths because of this beautiful girl . . .” as Tom told it) for a weekly community radio show, The Fish and Farm Report, where Tom would critique the Wall Street Journal, call his correspondents across the Island and the eastern seaboard, and even mounted a Send a Blonde to Africa campaign. Through the show, Tom worked to foster confidence in public speaking, creating advocates for a local sustainable community. Behind this was Tom’s true belief that everyone had something valuable to say, and that everyone should be given a voice and a place to say it. The show was recorded from his home the night he died.

When, last May, the fishermen and farmers and musicians and cooks and many others who loved Tom held a benefit for him at the Agricultural Hall, he called it a “kick the bucket party.” He danced, played a little boogie woogie piano and gave the crowd a pep talk about sustainable fisheries. But he too was revived by it: “I felt the support of the community. No other place could I imagine it happening like that.”

Tom was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Feb. 8, 1953, the second of five children of Mary Louise Graham and Robert Osmers. Tom’s grandfather had been the Methodist minister for the Island in the 1920’s, and the Osmers children spent every summer here, where Tom developed his love of the ocean, nature and fishing. His interest in music came from his mother, who taught piano and played the church organ.

Growing up in Bayside, N.Y., Tom attended Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament Elementary School, then Holy Cross High School in Flushing, N.Y., where he played safety on the football team. He was also in speech club and unsurprisingly won numerous awards. Tom transferred to Bayside High School, where he was a member of the swim team, but he left school and later took the GED exam, scoring in the high 90s.

Visiting experimental blue mussel station. — Mark Alan Lovewell

  His first job was as a valet at a high-end restaurant in New York city, but his sense of adventure led him to pursue more exciting jobs. Before college, he worked as a freight handler for the Flying Tiger Lines at Kennedy Airport and rode the streets of New York on the back of a meat delivery tru ck. And that’s when Cliff the meat man turned him into a ladies’ man.

With encouragement from his parents and a passion for the arts and sciences, Tom considered higher education. He enrolled at St. Francis College in Maine in response to an advertisement which promised students on-campus fishing. There he joined the debating team and choral society, ran the college radio station and the school newspaper.

As editor, he used the paper to generate financial support for the athletic department. Tom loved baseball. He pitched on the varsity baseball team and batted over .300. He served as the leader of several nature study groups, including the Lichen Pickers and Growers Association. Tom excelled academically, but his true calling was that of a naturalist. Tom was elected president of his class in a landslide victory as a last-minute write-in candidate, Fish Head for President. He drove around a red jeep with the phrase “Ah Bass” spray-painted across the side.

After college, he tried out for the Cincinnati Reds. He never played professionally, but he played baseball his entire life and saw it as a way to bring people together. While sailing around the Caribbean, Tom organized a local baseball league for children on St. Vincent. From then on Tom always carried baseballs, bats and gloves wherever he traveled. Over the years his fishing took Tom throughout Central America and the Caribbean. One of his most memorable adventures was an expedition to explore the vein of gold in Costa Rica with the National Geological Society of England. After college, Tom moved to the Vineyard and immersed himself in the local fishing community. Over the years, he fished for everything from oysters to blue fin tuna. Tom’s greatest mentor was Franklin Benson, a lifelong friend and fisherman. Franklin and Tom lived less than a mile from each other on Lambert’s Cove Road, and Tom called Franklin every morning to ask him how the weather was at his house. Tom often remarked that Franklin was one of the most influential people in his life. He gave to Tom the Merry Sea, Tom’s first and most cherished vessel.

Tom’s earliest endeavor as a commercial fisherman was fishing for striped bass with his brother, Chris, on the North shore. Tom and Chris would follow the night tide fishing from the shore, leaving caches of fish in their path to be picked up and sold in the morning. Tom took almost as much joy in giving fish away as he did in catching them. Above all Tom was a philanthropist.

Though Tom fished on many boats around Cape Cod and the Islands, including the Ellen Louise, a sea scallop boat from Nantucket, his heart was in Menemsha. He served for many years as a crew member and captain with the Mayhew family, aboard the Unicorn and the Quitsa Strider. It was with the Mayhews that Tom began harpooning swordfish on the Grand Banks. Many fishermen would agree that Tom enjoyed swordfishing more than anything else.

During the winter Tom’s second home was the West Tisbury Great Pond. He realized the valuable resource the oysters could provide to the community. Together with other town fishermen, Tom developed an oyster fishery that lasted decades and fed many. It was there on the Great Pond that Tom began to develop his sense of environmental stewardship and commitment to conservation. Tom used fishing to instill these principles in the Island youth. The creative potential of humanity was the foundation of Tom’s faith.

As fish stocks became depleted, Tom became an advocate for a small boat sustainable fishery and began to revive artisanal fishing methods. “I’m a hand-line fisherman,” he mused to the Gazette in 2008. “There should be more fishermen working in a friendly fashion as opposed to a few industrial users. I make less and less; I just cut new holes in my belt. I do pickup work.” Tom believed that if the large scale commercial fishing boat was replaced by many smaller boats, the maritime culture in New England would be preserved for future generations.

Tom was a great teacher who loved people and cared more for others than himself. He had a gift for empowering people and unlocking their creative potential; he always encouraged his friends to follow their dreams. With his quick wit and humor, he could communicate with many different types of people. Tom believed in equality, and no matter who you were, he spoke to you the same.

Tom pioneered the notion of affordable housing by opening up the gates to the home he called “The Dump Land Paradise” to anyone in need. As his good friend Farmer Brown put it, “If people didn’t have a place to stay, he always gave them a place under his roof, even if his roof leaked.” Tom knew that community begins in the kitchen, and the door at his house on Island Farms Road was always open at dinner time for “Big Time Grub with Captain Tom.” He was incredibly resourceful and lived off the land. He loved foraging for wild berries and feral fruit, hunting for turkeys and fishing, of course. Besides bringing people into his home, he enjoyed delivering fish on visits to people around the Island.

Tom was blessed by a great many beautiful women in his life. He was a hopeless romantic, and women found his charm, sense of adventure, spontaneity and sweet-talking ways irresistible. More than one called him a pirate in shining armor.

Tom said once that “if the winds blowing right, a butterfly can flap its wings off the coast of South Africa and you get a hurricane in Cape Cod.” He believed that small efforts can make big changes all over the world, he believed in random acts of kindness and he walked the walk. Tom’s spirit will carry on in the hearts and minds of his many friends and fellow Vineyarders. His efforts to make positive change will be felt for years to come. One of the greatest ways to honor Tom is to embrace his passion and enthusiasm for living.

Tom is survived by his parents, Robert and Mary Lou Osmers of Bayside, N.Y., his older brother Chris of West Tisbury, and his three younger sisters, Ellen of Dover, Susan of Sturbridge, and Anne-Marie of Elmont, N.Y. He was the proud uncle to his nieces Julie, Kayla and Alyssa, and nephews John, Robert, Otto and Nevin.

Donations in Tom’s name may be sent to the Martha’s Vineyard Dukes County Fishermen’s Association, P.O. Box 423, Oak Bluffs 02557. The Tom Osmers Fund will be used to help sustain a healthy oyster fishery, help Island youth with fishing ventures, and the possible future cod fishery.