Editorial: Russ Hoxsie, R.I.P.

As distinguished a physician as Russ Hoxsie was, his long medical career did not define his contribution to his Martha’s Vineyard neighbors.

Sure, he practiced medicine, he was the county medical examiner, an emergency room physician, chief of the medical staff, hospital board member. He went to Boston hospitals to see his Vineyard patients. He created the first cardiac acute care unit on the Vineyard, and he led the way in the diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease. He pressed for better more modern care for Islanders.

But, in fact, Russ Hoxsie, who died this week at 83, ministered to the broader community of Martha’s Vineyard in many ways, medical and non-medical, and the community returned the favors. He was a careful observer, a friend to many, patients or not, and a thoughtful, sensitive practitioner of poetry and prose.

For several years, Russ wrote the Off North Road column in The Martha’s Vineyard Times, and ultimately the newspaper published a collection of his work. The column ranged across an unlimited catalogue of keen observations, offered gently, sweetly, and often delivered from the perspective of his dog, Lilly, who accompanied him most days on a walk.

His wide, genial acquaintance, always appreciated by those he encountered, was at the heart of his informal lay ministry of wise counsel, easy humor, and quiet listening. A few minutes spent with Russ were always a few minutes well spent.

In an October 2007 column called “Moving or Not,” Russ wrote about a trip to the barber’s. He introduced the cast of characters and recalled the ensuing debates.

“This week I finally got to Bert’s Barber Shop where Phil, Wayne, and Bethany hang out to cut hair. The atmosphere is always friendly; occasional gossip is passed along among clients and barbers. Phil is famous for starting a conversation about local politics, hoping to hear opposite sides on the same question, perhaps stirring up a little heat in the process. I wonder what this morning will be like.

“‘Mornin’ doc,’ Phil’s words ring out especially loud and generous as I open the door. Things seem quiet today. I’m feeling anxious and pulled in all directions this week since we’ve started planning for a move to winter quarters in Vineyard Haven for a change. We’re growing old and less comfortable, isolated up-Island and worrying about loss of electricity, stormy weather, and the problem of failing eyesight driving up and down North Road. I hope I’ll feel better by the end of today; my straggly sparse hair will be shorn to a smooth carpet, albeit of thin threads.”

A member of this easy troop of neighbors chivvying one another as they waited their turns, Russ ventures an observation.

“Around and around goes the insulting happy jamboree at the barber’s, when I say quietly to Phil, ‘You know, I think this is one of the few barber shops in the country that can attract at least half of their high school basketball teammates and a bench-full of second stringers within stone’s throw of Main Street, on a moment’s notice, on a random date in the year.’

“Most kids these days have long moved away from their original home surroundings, especially here on an Island but universally all over the country. Chicagoans move to Arizona. New Englanders move en masse to the southern states, etc, etc. Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays bring out enormous caravans of families on the move along the by-ways and flyways just to re-establish family ties and make some effort of reclaiming happy memories of days gone by.

“Phil remains quiet for a few short minutes, then whispers to me: ‘That’s an original thing you just said, doc. You ought to write about this morning’s haircut.’”

And, of course, Russ, who was in, of, and about the community in which he practiced his various humane arts, did just as Phil advised.