Chilmarker Herbert Hancock’s legacy honored

Billy Hancock, Mr. Hancock's wife, and Bette Carroll, matriarch of a branch of the Carroll/Flanders/Mayhew clan, were among those in attendance Monday. — Photo by Susan Heilbron

With little fanfare and short notice — just the way selectman Herbert R. Hancock would have liked it — about 30 family, friends, and Chilmark town officials gathered at 10 am, Monday in Chilmark town hall to dedicate a plaque to the man who guided the town through a transformative period and left an indelible stamp on those who knew him.

Selectman Warren Doty said that the plaque would remind him to keep town affairs as simple as possible with a minimum of red tape and, he added, to protect the commercial fishing port of Menemsha.

Rev Arlene Bodge closed the ceremony with a prayer in which she said that walking in Herbert Hancock’s footsteps was an honor.

“There was not a dry eye in the place,” said Tim Carroll, town executive secretary, who organized the gathering that dated back to a resolution passed at special town meeting in March 2001.

Mr. Hancock died at the age of 71 on April 26, 2001 at his home on Middle Road after a short battle with cancer. A builder, lobsterman, and decoy carver, he served the town in many different roles, most notably as selectman for 37 consecutive years from 1964.

As a selectman, Mr. Hancock drew upon values rooted deeply in an Island lineage dating back three centuries to the earliest appearance of Europeans in New England. He anchored Chilmark as it evolved from a mostly poor, tightly knit fishing and farming community with few zoning regulations to a town of million-dollar houses and wealthy summer residents, where bare-bottomed celebrities stroll on popular Lucy Vincent Beach.

Mr. Hancock fought, by and large successfully, to preserve the rural character of the town and maintain the small picturesque port of Menemsha as a place where working fishermen and town residents would not be displaced by commercial or residential development of the harborfront, or by wealthy summer pleasure boaters.

Plainspoken and most comfortable in a red plaid shirt and sneakers, Mr. Hancock held an abiding belief that less government is better government, and that the best government is local government.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Hancock supported three-acre zoning in Chilmark. It was a concept he said he reluctantly embraced for the town’s own good because he saw no other way to prevent over-development and a proliferation of small lots.

Chilmark implemented zoning regulations a district at a time. Mr. Hancock made certain that the first district included his family’s ancestral farm in the area of Chilmark known as Quenames, “instead of picking on someone else first.”

Despite a record of incumbency that many politicians would envy, Mr. Hancock was no politician. Throughout 13 terms he had a reputation for speaking his mind, briefly and to the point, and standing his ground if he thought something was best for Chilmark, even when it meant resisting pressure from friends and neighbors.

Before his death, Mr. Hancock said, “What the hell is the point of being involved if you’re afraid to say what you’re thinking? A lot of people may not like it, but recently they don’t pay any attention anyway, so that’s all right too. But they used to pay attention.”

Frugal with tax dollars, he was a generous man who preferred to make no fuss about his own generosity. When a young couple failed to receive one of Chilmark’s reduced cost “youth lots” through a program Mr. Hancock helped establish to provide affordable land for young people who might otherwise not be able to stay in town, he carved out a building lot from his own property.

Of his youth, Mr. Hancock said, “Nobody had any money but it [the Island] was beautiful, and nobody knew they were poor. At least the kids didn’t. And everybody had common sense. Damn near everybody.”

On March 21, 2001, in one of the last town meetings held before Mr. Hancock died, Chilmark voters honored Mr. Hancock by voting to install a plaque on town hall to memorialize his “utmost personal integrity, stalwart fiscal responsibility, and unselfish devotion to town affairs.”

The unanimous vote was followed by a standing ovation that echoed in the damp night air of a changing Chilmark.

The plaque affixed to a brick wall next to the town safe and unveiled Monday reads:

Herbert R. Hancock was first elected on May 20, 1964 to serve Chilmark as a Selectman, Member of the Board of Public Welfare and Assessor.

Mr. Hancock served the Town of Chilmark with the highest and utmost personal integrity, stalwart fiscal responsibility and unselfish devotion to the town affairs for 37 years.

He was a leader in the development of zoning, working to preserve the modest scale and rural character of our community.

He fought to protect Menemsha village and preserve it as one of the few remaining small fishing harbors in Massachusetts.

Mr. Hancock led both by personal example and by creating a program to make it so that children of Chilmark could afford housing for themselves and their children.

By resolution of the Special Town Meeting. March 21, 2001.