Hundreds of Islanders turned out at the Ag Hall on Saturday to recall and say farewell to Ozzie Fischer, who died on July 26 at the age of 96. When they signed a guest book at the door, they were encouraged to take a small piece of wood from a basket.
The gathering was billed as a celebration, but it was bittersweet: too many people were just too sad that Albert Oswald Fischer Jr. was no longer with us.
In Chilmark, where he lived for the last 60-some years, Ozzie became an institution, even if some of the old-timers gave him the predictable cold shoulder when he and his wife, Regina, first moved into town from the remote reaches of Vineyard Haven.
In time, he served the town as fire chief, assessor, fence viewer, constable, animal officer, selectman, and member of the planning board and board of health, among other positions. But above all, he was a presence, an anchor, in the lives of many, many people on the Island, especially up-Island. Driving by Beetlebung Farm and knowing that Ozzie was there gave those of us lucky enough to know him a sense of balance, a sense that the world might make it after all. To chat with Ozzie — about the weather, about when to plant peas, about fishing — and see that twinkle and hear that chuckle left you feeling better, always.
Considering the loss of a man like that, no wonder so many people were so sad on Saturday, despite Albert Fischer III’s prediction that “that this is going to be fun, we’re going to have some fun,” when he greeted the crowd at the beginning of the ceremony. “We’re so proud of my father, and he would be so proud to have all of you here,” he added.
In the same vein, Marie Scott later said, “It’s wonderful to see you all here today, and to know that he was as important to you as he was to us.”
After Alysse Fischer sang a lovely, haunting ballad, one by one Ozzie’s four children and many of his 15 grandchildren recounted anecdotes about Ozzie and recalled his many winning qualities. The recurring theme was how much they would miss him.
It started with his warmth: “He was my soft place to fall when I needed to,” his daughter Suzie Bunker wrote.
“The safest I ever felt was when I was curled up in my father’s lap when I was a little boy,” Albert said. “There was the feel of his whiskers, and he always smelled so good. He smelled like the earth.”
Doug Fischer, Ozzie’s oldest child, said that his father wasn’t one to hug much until he got to a certain age, and then “it was like a hugging contest whenever we met.”
Doug recalled a particularly touching moment with his father. “It was the day before I was going into the service, and I had to go mow someone’s lawn. Just as I got started, he drove up and said he wanted to help, so we could spend some time together.”
Lydia Fischer recalled a time when she came up behind Ozzie to hug him, and he said, “You could do that again sometime, you know.” Lydia later sang a favorite song that reminded her of her grandfather.
Many of the speakers referred to the model that Ozzie provided for them, practically and morally. “He lived life well, and he taught me how to live life well,” Nathaniel Scott said in a letter.
“If there were more people in the world like him, just think how good things would be,” Rodney Bunker said. “He was so happy when he knew his animals were happy.”
Doug’s son Ozzie said, “I was named after my grandfather, the greatest person you’d ever meet. I could get into a lot of trouble around the farm, but he never raised his voice with me. Not once.”
Later, Doug Seward and Robin Hyde spoke of Ozzie as one of the most important influences in their lives.
Then there was Ozzie’s connection to the earth, the ground and what it produced. Speaking of how much she missed her grandfather, Malia Scott said, “I felt it most when I was in the garden with my son, Quinn, picking berries, surrounded by all that he’d done.”
Andrea Scott said, “I’ll think of him whenever I plant a seed, when I fill my birdfeeders, when I collect my calendula seeds. He was a beautiful man.”
Josh Scott spoke of Ozzie’s devotion to planting or transplanting trees and shrubs — 42 species around the farm — and his patience and perseverance. A forlorn stick in Ozzie and Rena’s front yard that some folks ridiculed is now a copper beech 40 feet tall and wide. “Pop talked to his trees and plants and flowers, like he did with his family,” Josh said.
Several speakers referred to Ozzie’s courage, especially in his last days. In the hospital the day before he died, Erica Bunker noticed how calm he was. “I noticed how smooth his hand was. Farming all his life, and fishing, and his hands were so smooth.”
To others, a lasting image of Ozzie was the dirt under his fingernails. “I picture him with extra long red hat with the black brim, his walking stick, and dirt under his fingernails,” Molly Fischer said.
Molly’s dad, Albert, said, “I look at my fingernails and they have dirt under them, just like Dad’s.”
Ozzie was quick to find humor wherever he could, and he was quite the prankster. “I remember when Mom fell,” Albert recalled, “and one day she called, ‘Ozzie, bring me my pill.’ And he said, “Can you imagine: I’m 91 years old, and my wife’s still on the pill.”
After swimming in his pool one day, Molly Fischer told Ozzie that she’d gotten a shock from the railing when she got out of the pool. “That’s what you get for stealing the cookies,” he said.
John Bunker recounted the time when Ozzie spread peanut butter on the outside of a shack where he was sleeping, only he was kept up most of the night by a skunk scraping the treat off the door.
Some of his stunts led to unforeseen results, as did a few accidents he had around the farm. When he was found out, he was quick to beg his kids, “Don’t tell your mother.”
Ozzie was also famous for his sweet tooth. “Dad loved his deserts,” Albert said. “Once, when he tasted a really rich chocolate cake at a potluck, he said, ‘God Almighty.’ From then on it was known as the God-Almighty cake. He always kept Chilmark Chocolates in the house, and they were the last thing he ate. Two days before he died I took the filling out of a truffle and spread it on his lips.”
Albert wrapped up the scheduled speeches with what he called a random list of thoughts about his father. Most of them were funny, but in the end, Albert said, “He was my hero.
“I always wanted to be like my father. I wanted to hit home runs like my father. I wanted to throw hay bales over my shoulder up into the loft the way he did. I always wanted to be kind to my friends, and generous to my neighbors like he was. I was always so proud of my father and I’m proud of you all for coming. I’m very proud of who I am, and I owe that to my father.”
Thanks to two short films, by Linsey Lee and David Modigliani, the crowd could once again hear Ozzie’s unmistakable voice, watch the way he moved — slowly, deliberately, purposefully. Between the films was a loving slide show by granddaughter Eva Stanley.
Then, after more than two hours of visiting vicariously with someone it was impossible not to love, it was time to dig into the dozens, maybe a hundred, potluck dishes that weighed down several long tables in the front room of the Ag Hall.
Hugs and family photos followed, and then goodbyes, and we went away filled with all kinds of emotions, but universally happy that we’d had the chance to know this wonderful man.
We also each left with a small piece of the redwood that he’d planted some 40 years ago, and which, against all odds, had taken and thrived — until last summer, when it died. A sweet memento, it was a little chunk of something Ozzie grew.