John W. Mayhew, beloved husband, father, grandfather, WWII Navy fighter pilot, West Tisbury town father, fisherman, teacher and friend, died at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital on January 10. He died in the early morning hours, around the time he would rise to go fishing years ago. His family says it imagines that is where he has gone. He was 91 years old and had lived at Windemere Nursing Home since 2008.
John was a tenth generation Island Mayhew. In 1920, his parents — John W. Mayhew Sr. and Helen Lee Mayhew — were living in Asia, but his mother returned to stay with family in Cleveland, Ohio, in order that he might be born in this country. John arrived on November 2.
Two months later, his extensive early life travels began. His father worked in the Philippines as an accountant for the Socony Oil Company. John Sr. was given three months’ leave every three years, and in those days it took a month to travel by ocean liner and train to the East Coast, where, in 1923, John Sr. and his wife eventually bought a house of their own off Music Street on Look’s Pond in West Tisbury. Through 1937, John and his sisters, Jane and Prudence, traveled back and forth with their mother between West Tisbury and wherever their father happened to be working in Asia.
John’s schooling began at the old West Tisbury Academy (now the Town Hall), and over the years he went back and forth between the Academy and schools in the Philippines, Switzerland, Kowloon, and Vietnam. With a characteristic twinkle in his eye, he always loved to say that he graduated second in his 8th grade class in West Tisbury – then confess that he only had one classmate. John then attended the Tisbury School for grades 9 and 10, returned to Kowloon for a time, and finally finished his last years of high school in the U.S. at Deerfield Academy. He entered Brown University in the fall of 1939.
By this time John had been around the world twice by ship and train and had passed through the Suez and Panama canals. He had also spent one summer on the French Riviera at Juin Les Pains. As late as a year ago, John could still recite poetry in French that he had learned in his youth during his extensive travels and schooling in foreign countries, and he once impressed his fellow high school teachers by ordering dinner at a Chinese Restaurant — in Chinese.
During his junior year at Brown, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, John volunteered to join the Navy as a fighter pilot. He had had his first flight experience at 14, in a light plane owned in part by his cousin Everett Whiting. Having gotten the flying bug and anticipating America’s entry into the war, he took a primary civilian pilot training program, in 1940, in a Piper Cub, for course credit during his sophomore year. He then enrolled in a secondary course in a Waco biplane, learning aerobatics.
John had two tours of combat duty in the Pacific — the first land-based on Guadalcanal and the second carrier-based covering the landings on Iwo Jima, among other operations — flying Grumman F4F Wildcats. The Navy awarded him two gold stars for “meritorious achievement in aerial flight” and contributing “materially to the success of his squadron.” He was then assigned to be a fighter type instructor in Chincoteague, Virginia, working with a Corsair Fighter squadron in F4U4s.
In December 1945, after the war, John returned to inactive duty and to Brown, graduating in 1947. There he met his future wife, Shirley J. Walling from Westchester County, N.Y., who was attending Pembroke College. John brought Shirley to the Vineyard, took her out duck hunting, proposed to her in the duck blind, and they were married in New York in September, 1947.
John and Shirley settled in West Tisbury, where he formed a small shellfish company on Tisbury Great Pond, which he ran for about 10 years. He went swordfishing in the summers out of Menemsha with yachts owned by the late Nelson Blount. He was one of the first people to try to spot swordfish from an airplane.
John and his bride first lived as renters in the old Chicken Coop on Everett Whiting’s West Tisbury farm, and then in the Old Parsonage across the street. Their son Jack was born in 1949, their daughter Deborah in 1951, and their daughter Sarah in 1955.
In 1957, John and Shirley built a house on land given them by his mother, Helen, on Look’s Pond in West Tisbury. After the war John had joined the Navy’s organized reserve as a “weekend warrior,” flying the F4U4 Corsair. He served as commanding officer of Fighting Squadron 914 and also flew the Grumman F9F6 Cougar jet fighter with this squadron for two years. His family remember him “strafing” the beach at Quansoo in his jet when he knew they were there in the summer. He was also known to occasionally harass his fellow shellfishermen with low passes over Tisbury Great Pond. John retired from the Navy in 1980, with the rank of full commander, having logged more than 2,000 hours of Navy flight time.
In the late 1950s, John learned of plans for the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and decided to become a teacher. His teaching career began when the school opened in the fall of 1959. John taught algebra, geometry and calculus. He served as department chairman for most of his 27 years with the high school, and all three of his children attended his classes. John also served a stint as president of the MVRHS teachers’ association, and tutored during the summer. Most of his tutoring students were off-Islanders attending the best East Coast prep schools and summering on the Vineyard with their families. John was loved and respected by his many students for his quiet, unflappable, and humorous teaching style. Because he often arrived at school in the early morning hours, straight from hunting or fishing, he was affectionately referred to as “Cap’n” by his students.
John’s service to West Tisbury included terms as secretary of the library; member of the finance committee, board of health, the first zoning committee, the voluntary fire department and the M.V. Shellfish Group; selectman, president of the All Island Selectmen’s Association, and selectmen’s representative on the new school building committee. He also served on a committee to make recommendations on the town government.
After retiring from teaching in 1986, John enjoyed a long and active retirement, spending time fishing, shellfishing, lobstering, and vegetable gardening (all to the delight of his family and friends), following the careers of his three children and enjoying visits with his three grandchildren, Caroline, Lucy, and Katie. John’s last public appearance was to be honored as one of three surviving West Tisbury WWII veterans at the rededication of the West Tisbury WWII memorial monument, on this past Veteran’s Day. John had a wonderful voice and loved to sing, which he did even in his final days, and he passed his love of music on to his children and grandchildren.
John’s younger sister, Prudence, predeceased him. He is survived by his older sister, Jane Mayhew Rust of Hingham; his wife, Shirley; his son, Jack; his daughters, Deborah of West Tisbury and Sarah of Davis, California; and his granddaughters: Caroline of Washington, D.C., Lucy of San Francisco; and Katie of Purchase, N.Y.; and four nieces and a nephew. His family are very proud of all his service to his country, his town, and his family, and will miss him terribly.
Interment will be private. A community-wide memorial service will be planned for later in the year, with notice provided in both local papers.
Arrangements are by Chapman Cole and Gleason Funeral Home (ccgfuneralhome.com/funeral-home-mvy.asp).