A writer who became a reporter, then a public relations executive, then a historian, Arthur Roy Railton died peacefully at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital last week of respiratory failure after a very brief illness. He was 95 years old, and his bond with the Island lasted nearly as long, and took many forms.
Mr. Railton was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, the oldest child of Anne and Albert Railton, who themselves had just emigrated there from Yorkshire, England. In 1916, while his father was serving in France with the Royal Canadian Army, his mother moved with him to Lawrence, Massachusetts, to join her sister there. He grew up in Salem, New Hampshire, where his father worked in a textile mill.
He became the first member of his family to go to college, paying his own way through Boston University and then the University of Iowa. It was there that he met the love of his life, Marjorie Marks. They married in 1942, in Elgin, Illinois, just before he was shipped overseas as a newly commissioned officer in the Army Air Corps. When the Air Corps was integrated with the Army, he became a captain in General George Patton’s Third Army, debarking in Normandy and taking part in Patton’s push across Europe and deep into Germany, earning a Bronze Star. His experience in the war, and most especially in the liberation of several concentration camps, marked him deeply, and he maintained a lifelong commitment to peace.
He began his journalistic career working for a number of small papers in the Midwest. During the 1950s he worked in Chicago as Automotive Editor at the magazine Popular Mechanics, where his articles on the Beetle attracted the attention of Volkswagen. In 1960 they offered him the job of managing their public and media relations department, a job that brought him and his family to New Jersey. He worked for Volkswagen of America until 1977. He was 62 when he retired and began a new life on Martha’s Vineyard.
Family ties had brought him to Edgartown as a young man, helping his uncle build the house that later became his mother’s summer home. He kept his Vineyard connection alive through all his years in other parts of the country by spending as much of the summer here as possible. For half a century, beginning in the mid-Fifties, he rented the same house on Quitsa Pond, where he introduced his own four children, and then his eight grandchildren, to the joys of “messing about in boats,” as he liked to call it. Off-season he lived with Marge on Summer Street in Edgartown, just a short walk from the Dukes County Historical Society, where his new career as a historian began.
It started casually enough in 1978, when Gale Huntington, retiring as editor of the Society’s quarterly Intelligencer, asked him to take on the job for a year until a new editor could be found. One year turned into 28. Marge, who had worked on the same small newspapers with him in the 1940s, served as his copy editor until her death in December, 2000. After that he carried on single-handed until May, 2006. He was not only the editor of the Intelligencer but also, much of the time, a chief contributor. In the research he did in the Society’s archives and the stories he wrote about lighthouses, whaling, and other aspects of Vineyard life, he found the story he really wanted to report: the lives of those who, from the years before the Europeans arrived until the present, lived, worked, loved, ventured forth, struggled, and died on this small patch of sand, floating a few miles — but always at a different kind of distance — off the Massachusetts coast. The thousands of pages of history that he published in quarterly installments in the Intelligencer included African-Americans on Martha’s Vineyard, a special edition that appeared in 1997.
His passions for history and this place culminated in 2006 in the publication of the magisterial “Martha’s Vineyard: A History of How We Got to Where We Are,” the first comprehensive account of the Island’s past in over a century. He was already in his 80s when he set out to write this story, and over 90 when he finished it. It was a labor of love, which also proved a popular and critical success, quickly selling out its first two printings.
Other publications that came out of his “retirement” years include his first book, The Beetle: A Most Unlikely Story,” a history of the Volkswagen “bug” published in 1985 and later translated into German; “Walking Tour of Historic Edgartown” (revised edition, 1998); over a hundred “Just a Thought …” monthly columns for the Vineyard Gazette; and “That Sometimes Separated but Never Equaled Island,” a memoir of Chappaquiddick that he edited in 1981. His “commitment to preserving Island history, arts, and culture” were recognized with receipt of the Bartholomew Gosnold Award in 2002, and the Martha’s Vineyard Medal in 2010.
Among his many other acts of service to the Island are his terms as officer of the Chilmark Community Center and President of the Historical Society, his work to help preserve the Edgartown historical district, and his many years as “Commodore” of the Menemsha Races, an unofficial title he held for almost a quarter century. Again with Marjorie as his partner, he spent every Wednesday and Saturday in July and August on the water, running the sailfish and handicap races in which hundreds of people, from ages 9 to 90, rounded the five buoys he put out every year on Menemsha Pond. As one of those racers, Dr. Bernard Levy, put it in a memorial tribute to the Commodore: “My children and I learned many life lessons at his hand, for which we are truly grateful.”
Mr. Railton is survived by three sisters: Elsie Rushton of Salem, New Hampshire; Nancy Jones of Virginia Beach, Virginia; and Dorothy Fisher Dickie of Milford, New Hampshire. His oldest sister, Ruth Gordon of Edgartown, died in 2010. He is also survived by his four children: Stephen of Charlottesville, Virginia; Peter of Ann Arbor, Michigan; Mark of Hingham, Massachusetts; and Janet of Olathe, Kansas — as well as eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
His funeral service was held at the Old Whaling Church on Tuesday, May 24. Burial followed in the New Westside Cemetery, Edgartown.
Donations may be made in Arthur’s memory to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, P.O. Box 1310, Edgartown, MA 02539.