John Miles McSweeney, a Chappaquiddick resident since the 1970s and former resident of New York and Greenwich, Conn., died Feb. 11, 2013 on Martha’s Vineyard. John died due to complications following a stroke. He was 67 years old.
John was born April 5, 1945 at the Sloane Hospital for Women in New York city. He was the second son born to parents Mary Hartzell McSweeney and Edward F. McSweeney Jr. Along with eldest brother Edward F. (Dooley) III and younger sister Mary Denis, the McSweeney family resided together in their home on Sutton Place in Manhattan. Theirs was a privileged and memorable family life of rarefied beauty, culture and refinement.
As an infant, John was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith in the Church of Saint John the Evangelist Parish, one of the oldest and most prestigious churches in the city.
John’s mother, Mary (Budgie) Hartzell McSweeney, was a pioneer advocate for women’s health care rights and reform. She was a devoted medical research and medical care volunteer worker, and was instrumental in her support to create The National Committee Against Mental Illness in Washington, D.C. She was appointed by the secretary of health, education and welfare to the special Commission for the Control of Epilepsy. She was also a director and chairman of the Deafness Research Foundation, and was appointed by Governor Malcolm Wilson to the New York State Advisory Committee on Mental Health. Prior to that she had a 20 year career as an art director and an advertising and dress designer. She graduated the Emma Willard School, and enjoyed friendships with many notable individuals, in particular her closest personal friends, Mary Woodward Lasker, who introduced Mary to her future husband, and Amy Vanderbilt, who was John’s godmother.
John’s maternal great-great aunt, Ida Saxton McKinley, was the First Lady of the United States of America and the wife of William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States and former two term governor of Ohio. Mary Belinda Saxton Barber, the First Lady’s only sibling and John’s maternal great grandmother, also resided in the White House. There, she nursed her sister’s health following the deaths of their mother and President and Mrs. McKinley’s two young daughters. After President McKinley was assassinated in September 1901, the Saxton sisters returned home together to Canton, Ohio. They visited President McKinley’s grave there almost daily. Mrs. McKinley died less than six years later, in 1907, and is entombed beside the president and their two little daughters.
Mary Saxton Barber, daughter of Mary Belinda Saxton Barber, was the only grandparent with whom John had a relationship. They were especially close as she visited the McSweeney home often and shared the stories of her mother helping her sister in the White House. Mary Saxton Barber died when John was 12 years old.
John’s father, Edward F. McSweeney Jr. was initially employed by Mr. Condé Montrose Naste, the founder of Condé Nast Publications. In 1934 he founded Edward F. McSweeney Association, a management, executive-training and financial-consulting firm in New York. Mr. McSweeney also served as past chairman of the board of Bard College, and served as a director in several companies.
John’s paternal grandfather, Edward F. McSweeney, was the former editor of the Herald-American newspaper and the Boston Traveler, chairman of The Boston Port Authority, and assistant commissioner of immigration at New York, Ellis Island.
John was raised and educated in Manhattan and Armonk, N.Y. He graduated the New Hampton School and Pace University, following which he earned his real estate broker’s license and was employed by Mortimer and Mortimer Realtors of Greenwich, Conn., dealing in commercial properties in New York and Connecticut.
Since his first visit to Martha’s Vineyard at just five years old — perched on the deck of his parent’s sailboat where he helped the captain avoid whirlpools and the Wee Peckets (a well-used target range for the military) — John had a love affair with the Island. In the mid 1970s he washed ashore for the remainder of his life.
Just a few years after the tragic car accident on Chappaquiddick in 1969 that took the life of Mary Jo Kopechne, John became the longtime tenant of Lawrence Cottage, where the infamous party was held. John often told his stories of the paranormal activity he experienced while living there; some are detailed on page 125 in Haunted Island by Holly Nadler. John later designed and built his own dream home on Chappy while continuing his career in commercial and residential real estate.
John spent several years getting to know the Vineyard, enjoying five to 10 mile walks along the perimeter of the harbors and great ponds, circling the entire Island bit by bit. John drove a Vineyard tour bus and, due to his love of history, he learned the Island folklore and shared those charming and quirky tales with his lucky passengers. John had an affinity for stories, both oral and written, and wrote several stories featuring the many colorful and creative individuals who shaped the Island community. John’s intellectual thirst also included military history, inspired by his philosophy that human beings must reflect upon lessons learned in order to transcend prior poor judgment. This perspective is reflected in John’s book Fate’s Hinge, a historical novel about World War II.
Due to his family’s extensive historical roots, John developed a strong passion for both history and politics. In 1988 he launched a congressional campaign as Republican state representative for Barnstable, Dukes and Nantucket districts. Though he did not succeed in his candidacy, John was encouraged by significant state party leaders to pursue his political ambition. John’s charismatic personality made him an ideal candidate. John had previously pursued a run for Dukes County sheriff.
John strongly believed in contributing to the community and supporting those less fortunate. He served three terms on the finance committee of Edgartown, including in the position of vice-chair. John was particularly proud to be one of the charter members of The Rotary Club of Martha’s Vineyard, through which he became a Paul Harris Fellow and Happy Dollar Chairman. John also served on The Whale’s Tail Park Committee, a group committed to honoring the Vineyard’s whaling legacy. He was among those responsible for the placement of Ovid Ward’s elegant Whale’s Tail sculpture near Memorial Wharf in Edgartown.
Before his residency on Martha’s Vineyard, John coached basketball for the YMCA in Greenwich, and was a member of the Stamford Yacht Club in Connecticut. He also taught English at the Falmouth High School, and was a member of The Wood’s Hole Golf Club in Massachusetts.
John was a well-rounded athlete excelling at golf, hockey and basketball. He was enamored of the Edgartown Golf Course, where he became a “night crawler.” He considered it one of the most beautiful places on earth.
John treasured and exemplified good character and was surrounded by a wonderful and varied group of friends. He loved to entertain them at his parent’s Quissett Harbor home with its exquisite views of Buzzard’s Bay and later at his home on the Vineyard, cooking huge pots of spaghetti and regaling them with his stories. Capable of rallying big groups, John’s moniker became “the Chief” and those fortunate enough to have known him describe John as “larger than life.” He possessed a joie de vivre that pervaded the entire McSweeney clan. He was admired for his integrity, his kindness and especially for his generosity. John often paraphrased his father who believed in the acceptance of everyone, and his mother who believed that something may be learned from everyone we meet. Like his parents, John lived to serve others, seeing the good in everyone. To the end, John remained deeply grounded, humble, sincere and true.
John was predeceased by his two siblings, Edward F. McSweeney III and Mary Denis McSweeney Wozniak. He was also predeceased by a cavalcade of 17 beloved golden retrievers, many of whom were widely celebrated on Martha’s Vineyard. In particular, “Old Mr. Seth” enjoyed Islandwide acclaim for his athletic prowess in jumping off the Big Bridge. Seth’s audience sometimes grew to 100 strong on summer Sunday afternoons, and he and John were even photographed for the Cape Cod Times. Later the photo was picked up by the Associated Press and appeared in newspapers all over the country. “Old Mr. Seth” was also famous for his solo journeys on the Chappy Ferry in pursuit of extra scraps from the Quarterdeck Restaurant. John often reminisced tenderly of his first childhood canine companions, Buffy and Goldy, who stole his young heart. John’s golden retrievers were his soul mates.
John is survived by the children of his late elder brother: beloved nephew Edward F. McSweeney IV and nieces Jennifer McSweeney, Thayer McSweeney Fox, Binkie McSweeney Orthwein and Kitty McSweeney, as well as the children of his late younger sister: nephews John and Andrew Wozniak. He is also survived by his great nieces and great nephews, his cousins Connaught and Gale Mahoney and Erika Bard and his former in laws: Josephine, Penny, and Christine McSweeney, and Ronald Wozniak.
John’s final years were blessed by the presence of devoted friends, including Victoria Haeselbarth and Alan and Amy Gowell of Edgartown. All of John’s friends, scattered far and wide, will cherish memories of John’s good will, enduring spirit and boundless generosity.
John’s family and friends would like to extend heartfelt gratitude to the staff of Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center for their care of John. On John’s behalf, thank you to each and every one.
A celebration of the life of John Miles McSweeney will be held at the Chappaquiddick Community Center on Saturday, October 19 at 1 p.m. All who knew John are invited to attend and to share their memories. Please call 508-627-4539 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.
John Miles McSweeney Memorial Donations may be made to The Golden Retriever Club of America National Rescue Committee (grca-nrc.org) and The Rotary Club of Martha’s Vineyard (rotary.com).
"Love is Everything." ~ John Miles McSweeney