To the left of the steering column there is a little blue board attached to the dash; on this there is a white push-pull button. Before starting the car, this switch must be pulled out, then turn the key and the car should start. (Reason for new ignition system: The old one burned out and this was the cheapest way to fix it) . . . . Oil consumption: This is the worst part about the car. The engine burns approximately one quart of oil every 40 or 50 miles, sometimes more . . . . When you check the oil and find that it is low, which is usually the case, you must fill the silver can about half full and put it in the oil filler hole found on the top front of the engine. There is a rag attached to the radiator on which you can wipe the dip-stick, found on the left lower side of the engine . . . . There are no dashboard lights. They burned out along with the ignition system. The light hanging on the headlight switch is a spotlight. Just plug the plug into the lighter socket and it is a quite powerful spotlight. I have spent a good deal of time and money on that car and consider it mine. I would appreciate it if you would not lend it to anyone and be very careful with it.

Such were the instructions from the young William (Tony) Ratcliff, a longtime Vineyard resident who died on April 21, to his sister Lydia who needed to borrow the dilapidated Chevrolet in question. It was the art of making do, of improvisation at his highest level. The instructions encapsulated the personality and traits carried through his life: passionate, precise, peremptory and creative with a touch of autocracy. Tony’s affair with locomotion began when he and his brother John were gifted an Eshelman, a slow-moving child’s gas-powered car. Although a homely vehicle, to Tony, it represented an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Commandeering the Eshelman, dressed in a raccoon coat with an arm around a girlfriend, he drove off, exuding panache from every pore. This was Tony’s own Rolls Royce and he was out to make the most of it.

He was born August 21, 1945 in Palisades, N.Y., the son of John D. Ratcliff and Marie-Francoise Tonetti Ratcliff. During summers on Martha’s Vineyard, he settled into swimming, fishing and currying friendships at the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club. Such adventures were to vastly expand. In 1952, the family boarded the SS United States for Europe. Arriving in Le Havre, France, the plan was to drive to Italy and find a house on the Riviera. Aboard ship, Tony won $97 at bingo. The bounty was lavished on ice cream for all the young girls. His status thus enhanced, exploits continued. Arriving in Rapallo, Italy, Tony espied brightly-decorated carts along the seaside promenade, drawn by miniature donkeys. Irresistible, and before he could be stopped, Tony, like Ben Hur, tore along the promenade, reins taut and whip cracking, urging the stunned donkey onward. It set the tone for the memorable years in Italy.

The family settled into the Villa San Giacomo, in Santa Margherita Ligure. The grounds featured glorious gardens, fountains and statuary. The villa’s interior contained marble floors, frescoed ceilings, majestic staircases. With their sister Alex, Tony and John were enrolled in a convent school. The nuns, charmed and indulgent, were tolerant of this young hellion. Abandoning his crew cut, Tony grew his hair to a more Italian length, dyeing it a vibrant red. Mastering the Italian language and the Genoese dialect, he befriended numerous locals from fishermen to accordionists and carpenters. The carpenters opened a new world to him, and Tony became fascinated by the craft of working with wood using hand tools. Those skills served him well in later life.

Bowing to his father’s trade, Tony entered the University of Missouri’s journalism school. Although a gifted writer, he concluded that journalism was not his metier and transferred to the University of Louisville in Kentucky. There, he met his first wife with whom he had two children, Jennifer and Jacob. Eventually returning to New York, he was drawn to the farming life and moved to Whitehall, N.Y. to apprentice on his cousin’s dairy farm. The transition fit perfectly and he took to rural life, farm chores and milking cows. Later he bought a farm in Argyle, N.Y., and 30 cows.

In Argyle, Tony married his second wife, fathering his third child Benjamin Ratcliff, who tragically died on Martha’s Vineyard in a car accident in 2000. Having a perennial love for animals, he discovered an abandoned fawn. Bucky quickly adopted him, winning his way into Tony’s heart. Bucky also charmed others in the community, visiting the local school and shops. Sadly, the romance ended at the hands of a hunter. The void was then partially filled by two goats given to him by his sister Lydia. One, named Sunshine, was often seen sharing a joint with Tony.

After his second marriage dissolved, Tony leased the farm and headed for the Vineyard for a change of pace. He painted houses, helped builders and repaired sewing machines. Cutting all ties with Argyle, he brought his son Jacob to the Vineyard.

Tony fortuitously crossed paths with Deborah deBettencourt, an acquaintance from Vineyard summers. Soon, they lived under the same roof, sharing antics with an engaging, busybody raccoon. They wed on May 13, 1989. It was a long and happy marriage. Together they built two homes populated with lovable dogs and cats. Reverting to carpentry skills, Tony built fine furniture gracing their home. His dining table has witnessed memorable evenings with good wine and food, and occasionally Tony’s handmade gnocchi. His artistry also came through in the occasional whimsical items such as a prize-winning replica of the Islander ferry used as a bird-feeder.

With emphysema curtailing travel, in 2000 they set off for a farewell tour of Italy. Tony wanted to show Deborah the places of his childhood. They arrived in Rome to visit his sister Alexandra and to see the spectacular Amalfi and Positano coast.

Defying medical predictions, Tony persevered through worsening breathing and mobility problems for 16 years — primarily from the care and devotion of Deborah. But when the time finally came, his last words to his brother John were, “I’m ready for the Big Trip.”

Tony is survived by his wife Deborah of Oak Bluffs; his children Jennifer of Louisville, Ky., and Jacob of Oswego, N.Y.; sisters Lydia of Chester, Vt., and Alexandra of London, England and brother John of South Nyack, N.Y.

At his request, his ashes will be scattered on the Middle Ground, his favorite spot for fishing. There will be a private service at a date to be determined on the Middle Ground this August.