Theodore C. Meinelt, a teacher in the Island schools from 1938 to 1959, except for the war years, died Feb. 5 at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. He was 97. For much of his Island teaching career, he was supervisor of art in the school system. He was also a well-known watercolorist of Island scenes. He was born July 15, 1916 in Lawrence, a son of the late Walter and Clarice (Anderton) Meinelt. He attended Lawrence public schools and earned a bachelor’s degree in art from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. His first teaching experience was at the South End Settlement House in Boston, to which youngsters would come for instruction in arts and crafts after their regular school lessons. Then, on the day of the 1938 hurricane, as he recalled for Linsey Lee in Vineyard Voices, he was interviewed in Boston by Arthur B. Lord, superintendent of schools on the Vineyard, for a teaching position. “But where is it?” he remembered asking. “I didn’t know where Martha’s Vineyard was.”
His first job was to teach art in Vineyard Haven. He would be teaching art to the first eight grades twice a week and have a high school art class every day. He also taught mechanical drawing twice a week and seventh grade English daily. To capture the interest of his students, he designed an art curriculum with special emphasis on holiday themes and such subjects as geography, which his students were also being taught. He soon became involved in theatre productions at the Tisbury High School as well, for a stage had just been built there. Against some opposition on the part of the administration, he succeeded in getting sets built for the students’ theatre productions.
“I need some money for paint for the flats,” he recalled telling then school superintendent Henry Ritter. His request was denied, but the school had a sizable supply of colored chalk, so chalk was used for the flats “But, of course, the actors couldn’t go close to them or they’d get all chalked.”
In his first summer on the Island, he lived and worked at Bayside Inn and Cottages in Vineyard Haven. In winter he rented rooms in Vineyard Haven. Only three years after his arrival on the Vineyard, he was drafted into the Army. He was quickly recommended for Officers’ Training School, and as a member of the 233rd Engineer Combat Battalion, soon rose to the rank of captain. He saw action in the Philippines and Guam, and on the islands of Shimia and Okinawa in Japan. He remained in the Army Reserve as a captain after World War II.
When he returned to the Vineyard, Ted took a room with board at the Vineyard Haven home of retired whaling captain Hartson Bodfish. There he was introduced to such seafarers’ specialties as eel stifle — cut-up eel in scalloped potatoes. He summered in a camp on Lobsterville Beach at Gay Head and had his first one-man show of paintings at the Gay Head town hall. In 1948, he bought a small house that still stands on Cromwell Lane behind the Stop & Shop in Vineyard Haven.
From the start of his college education he took to art. ”It was remarkable what he could do with a wax crayon,” former Meinelt pupil, now newspaper cartoonist Anne Hotchkiss Ganz remembers.
“After class, he would give away the drawings he’d made, and he’d always have us do such interesting things. When I was a junior in high school, he had us make a caveman drawing. We had to bring a rock into school, and then, with charcoal, we drew what we wanted on it and painted it afterwards with colored clay slip. For one magic hour, we all became cave artists! How we adored Mr. Meinelt!”
In 1950, he married Mary (Polly) Hillman Mayhew at her family’s 18th-century homestead, known as The Old House on the South Road in Chilmark. She was the supervisor of home economics in the school system and lived in The Old House with her father, Harold Mayhew, who had retired from an engineering job in Washington. The young couple made their first home there with him and remained in The Old House after Harold Mayhew’s death in 1951.
Over the years, the Meinelts filled its rooms with appropriate antique furnishings and covered its walls with needlepoint and with Ted’s paintings. One room was cheerfully filled with wooden children’s blocks. In another, Ted kept the old post office window from Alley’s General Store in West Tisbury. In their eclectic collection of interesting objects and artifacts were items not only from the Vineyard, but from all over the world. Ted could always colorfully recount the story of how and where he had acquired each item. For every holiday the house was gaily and seasonally decorated, and in those seasons when flowers were in bloom, with Ted’s decorative floral arrangements. He was an active member of the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club in the days when its primary function was the conservation and preservation of the Island’s resources. An enthusiastic member of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, Ted twice was the director of the annual summer fair. Grace Episcopal Church and the Art Workers’ Guild, both in Vineyard Haven, were also among his interests.
In the 1950s, Polly Meinelt, who had quit her school job after her marriage to become a full-time mother, played an active role in the creation of the regional high school. But in 1959, concerned that their two children, Kelly-Anderton (Kam) and Walter (Terry) Mayhew, were becoming too sheltered living on the Vineyard, Ted accepted an off-Island position. He was asked to head the art department for the newly established Masconomet Regional School District on Boston’s North Shore, and the family moved to Topsfield. Before long, Ted became known as “Mr. Masconomet” because of his willingness to lend a helping hand to whatever art project needed to be done in the school district.
The Meinelts always joyously returned to The Old House in Chilmark each summer, however. For several seasons in the 1960s, Ted and Polly ran a small roadside antique shop and gallery, The Carriage Trade, next door to their house.
Finally, in 1978, after Ted’s retirement, they returned to Chilmark to stay year-round. By then, to Ted and Polly’s delight, both of their children had embarked on teaching careers. Kam had become a math teacher in Massachusetts and New Hampshire schools, while Terry, an artist like his father, had taken over Ted’s position at Masconomet.
Back home, they reestablished the long-lost gardens that Polly’s father had started at the time of his retirement. Ted became active in the Chilmark Cultural Council and played a leading role on Chilmark’s Tercentenary Committee. He also became a regular speaker at the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club, the Antiques Club and the Doll Club, and designed and built a series of historical exhibits for the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society. He returned, too, to being active in Agricultural Society affairs. As recently as last August, he won an honorable mention for his Arrangement of the Fair theme at the fair.
Ted Meinelt is remembered by his former students for his enthusiasm and imagination as a teacher and for his encouragement and support of them and their interests. His friends remember him for his delight in them. And all who knew him honor him for his love of the Vineyard, his efforts to preserve it, and his depth of knowledge of Island history and old families. Although in recent years he had suffered from hearing and sight loss, he never forgot details of Vineyard history and, in the way of every fine teacher, relished dispensing what he knew to his listeners.
Until the end, Ted insisted on remaining by himself in the historic Mayhew homestead where he and Polly had spent so much of their life together. Polly died in 2008.
He is survived by his son and daughter in law, Walker (Terry) and Kathy Meinelt of Topsfield and Chilmark, and four grandchildren: Thomas Mayhew Meinelt of New York city, Stephen Lynch Meinelt and his wife Katie of Winchester; John Wesley Meinelt of Boston, and Sarah Elizabeth Meinelt of Charlestown. He is also survived by his host of caring Vineyard friends, in particular Chris and Sheila Morse and the extended Morse family of West Tisbury, who made sure that he was safe and happy during his last years of independence in The Old House.
In addition to his wife, he was predeceased by their daughter, Kelly-Anderton (Kam) Meinelt Donovan in 1994.
A graveside service will be held on Saturday, March 8 at 12:15 p.m. at the Abel’s Hill Cemetery in Chilmark, followed by a reception at the Granary Gallery in West Tisbury.
Donations in his memory may be made to the Masconomet Regional Scholarship Foundation (the Meinelt Art Award), c/o Olga Langlois, Masconomet Regional Scholarship Foundation, 20 Endicott Road, Topsfield, MA 01983.