John S. Alley, the iconic West Tisbury historian, justice of the peace, county commissioner and longtime town columnist for the Vineyard Gazette, died at home in West Tisbury on March 19. He was 78 and had just returned from a brief stay at Massachusetts General Hospital after a heart attack and two stent insertions.

He had sent his last Gazette column from the hospital.

He was a West Tisbury selectman for 27 years, a county commissioner for 33 years, and for part of that time he was also an airport commissioner and commission chairman. He was a former longtime employee of Alley’s General Store, and was part owner of the store in the 1970s and 1980s.

Born on the Vineyard on Dec. 3, 1941, four days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he was the son of Albion and Mary Anne (Flight) Alley. After he was born, his father took a leave of absence from his job at Alley’s General Store to become chief of the guards at the Martha’s Vineyard Auxiliary Air Station (today the Martha’s Vineyard Airport).

Although he could not talk about what was happening at the airport during World War II, Beanie Alley, as he was known, and the family listened avidly to the nightly news on the radio. John dreamed that maybe when he grew up, he could be a radio news commentator.

Instead he became a consummate politician, his affinity for public life honed at an early age at Alley’s, the general store in the heart of the West Tisbury village owned by his family.

“From the age of six when I could read and count and crank the handle of a cash register and greet people I was put to work there.” he recalled in a 2019 Martha’s Vineyard Magazine interview.

“In those days, you built a rapport with the summer customers. You knew what people wanted and didn’t want. You remembered every customer’s name, and even their likes and dislikes from summer to summer.”

Early customers included the actor James Cagney, who had a farm in Chilmark, and LaMonte Cranston, who had played the Shadow in the radio program of that name and who had a West Tisbury home. John struck up friendships with them all.

He attended the West Tisbury School and graduated from the Tisbury High School in 1959, one year before the regional high school opened. After high school, many of his classmates headed off-Island to college, but that path held no appeal for John. He loved the Vineyard. He knew nothing about cities. He had been to New York only once when he was 16 and his friend Tim Maley asked if he wanted to drive down with him to take in a Red Sox game at Yankee Stadium.

As the story goes, when John asked his father’s permission to go to New York, Beanie Alley, a son of immigrants from the Azores, crossed his arms on his chest and laconically asked the two boys: “What’s New York good for?”

John felt largely as his father had about places off-Island. But he did apply to the Cambridge School of Broadcasting — remembering the wartime radio reports of Gabriel Heater and Edward R. Murrow and Lowell Thomas — and thinking that possibly radio reporting might be fun, even if it meant going off-Island. He was accepted at the school, passed the course and was offered a job in Albuquerque, N.M.

“But I didn’t want to go to Albuquerque, N.M. I didn’t know where the hell it was then, so I came home,” he said in the magazine interview.

Soon he was back at his father’s store, where his sister Phyllis and brother Jim were working.

After Albion Alley died in 1972, John, Jim and Phyllis took over the store together. Eight years later, Jim and Phyllis had grown tired of it and wanted to sell. John resisted, but finally agreed to a sale.

Since his days perched on a stool at the Alley’s cash register, John liked numbers as much as he liked people. In 1966, he made his first run for office and was elected to the West Tisbury finance committee. In 1976 he ran for selectman as a write-in candidate and won. He held the post for 26 years.

The 1970s and 1980s brought much change on the Vineyard, and as an Island politician John was in the middle of the fray.

In 1977 Massachusetts was redistricting and the Islands were slated to lose direct representation in the state legislature. A secessionist movement sprang up and John was at the forefront of the fight. The governor of Vermont, a sumer visitor and regular at Alley’s, suggested the Vineyard could join his state. Hawaii expressed interest in adopting Martha’s Vineyard. John and the Island were making national broadcast news.

The Vineyard’s notoriety grew like topsy. Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie Jaws was filmed on the Island in the summer of 1974. Many Islanders were hired for roles in the movie and John was among them. He was cast as a fisherman — hardly his forte, but he looked the part.

In the early 1980s, he met Anna Berry, a nurse from Oklahoma City who had moved to Boston to further her career and was renting an apartment from West Tisbury residents Tom and Helen Maley. At the time John was making frequent trips to Boston trying to get cable television for the Vineyard. They were married in 1982.

After Alley’s was sold, John decided he would become a notary public. On his way to Edgartown to get the particulars about the job, he picked up Allen Whiting, who was getting ready to marry. Allen suggested that John become a justice of the peace instead — then he could officiate at his wedding. John, who had always had a romantic streak, liked the idea. He got his justice of the peace license, and officiated at the Whiting wedding, done up colorfully in a top hat and bow tie and tails. It was the beginning of a long career as justice of the peace that would become his signature role. Everybody knew John Alley in his top hat and tails.

At the time of his death, he had performed 2,500 marriages — on beaches, at lighthouses, in parks, hotels and homes, on boats and even one on a plane.

He wore other hats too. He was the town cemetery commissioner, master of the West Tisbury Grange and a caretaker for the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust. In recent years he sorted the mail at Alley’s and put it into the general store’s 150 mailboxes, sometimes adding a chocolate for his favorite seasonal visitors.

Sig Van Raan, who also appeared frequently in John’s weekly column in the Gazette, was one.

“When I told him that the Buddha figure I had had in my yard had been stolen, he gave a great list in his column of countries to which it might have been taken. He ended up making a supposed sighting on Cape Air,” Mr. Van Raan recalled.

The bright yellow Toyota Matrix John drove to carry mail and packages between the main post office in North Tisbury and Alley’s was a gift from Peter Ochs, a longtime seasonal resident of Aquinnah and friend. He recalled his many visits with John.

“He would invariably say as I left — thanks for coming and come again soon, but don’t stay long!” Mr. Ochs said.

Former Gazette editor Richard Reston recalled an early encounter. ”When I first arrived on the Vineyard in the mid-1970s, one of my early visitors was a Lincolnesque fellow in jeans by the name of John Alley,” Mr. Reston wrote in an email. “His world was the Island and he taught me to strip away the outside world when writing about the reality of the Vineyard.”

In his last column, penned as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning, he wrote:

“I had the occasion to go to the grocery store on Friday, March 13, to pick up some personal items. Well, I was shocked to say the least. It was like I walked into absolute chaos. Shopping carts were full, except for mine. People were everywhere. I don’t recall panic buying to such a degree, with hardly anything on the shelves, and I have lived through many hurricanes.”

He was devoted to his family, his town and its history. He loved old John Wayne movies, and took pride in his Azorean heritage, including a love of Portuguese sweet bread.

He is survived by his wife, Anna, and son Sam, of West Tisbury; his daughter Nicole Alley and her husband of North Attelboro; four grandsons; a niece and three nephews. He was predeceased by his brothers Albion Jr. and James, and his sister Phyllis Smith.

A graveside service was held in late March at the West Tisbury Cemetery for family and friends, with the Rev. Cathlin Baker officiating. A larger celebration of his life will be planned when the pandemic crisis has ended.