Chances are, if you see well-tended flowers in a public place, the Friends of Oak Bluffs (FOB) are responsible. Chances are, if you’re sitting on a bench taking in the scenery or catching up with a friend, the FOB is responsible for the bench. The benches also serve as memorials; each one has a plaque commemorating the life of someone who in one way or another was a friend of Oak Bluffs.
“We have more benches in Oak Bluffs than all the other towns on the Island combined,” said Renee Balter, one of the longtime members of the FOB who gathered recently at the East Chop home of FOB member Ann Ross and FOB president Duncan Ross, to speak with the Times about the history of the organization, which will mark its 40th anniversary on September 5.
Keeping a volunteer organization going for 40 years is an accomplishment in itself. Yet, as the assembled FOB members shared stories and laughs and reflected on their work over the past four decades, it became clear that this coterie of citizens has done much more than stay together. In big ways and small, aesthetically and functionally, the Friends Oak Bluffs has changed the landscape of the town.
The fingerprints of the FOB are everywhere in town: the lush grass that carpets Ocean Park, the vibrant flower beds that greet visitors at every park entrance, the gazebo that now stands tall atop a new foundation; the trees that give shade in the day on Circuit Avenue and the lanterns that give light at night, are just a few of the accomplishments of this small but dedicated group of volunteers.
“Our first meetings were in the Baybar room, under the gym at the old Oak Bluffs school,” recalled founding member Priscilla Sylvia, who taught at the Oak Bluffs school for 35 years. “David Healy said, ‘This town is not looking good. We can do better,’ so we passed the hat and got to work. We didn’t even advertise.”
One of the first FOB projects was putting up Christmas decorations on Circuit Avenue. “We put the swag and red bows on the light poles, we even put bows on the broken lights, ” said founding member Judith Williamson. “We used to go tromping through the woods to get greens for the swag that went with the bows. One year poor Nancy Billings got poison oak.”
“I remember climbing those step ladders, in ten degrees with the wind blowing off the ocean,” said Ms. Sylvia shaking her head.
“Estelle and Roger Estelle Surprenant would take the bows down and she would iron them all so we could use them again next year. We were very careful with people’s donations,” said Ms. Williamson.
“Ocean Park used to look like a barren desert half the year,” Ms. Sylvia said. “There was no sprinkler system, no flowers, there was that awful split rail fence, the bandstand was disintegrating, the geese didn’t even like it.”
“We made it so nice, we had to pay for a dog to chase the geese,” said Ms. Balter, getting a laugh from her fellow FOBs.
The FOB is responsible for creating David Healy Square — known to many as the mall or post office square — now the heart and soul of downtown.
“The square by the post office, believe it or not, used to be a road,” Duncan Ross said. “You could go up Circuit Ave. and turn left. We named it after David because he really was the one that started the Friends of Oak Bluffs. He had a vision for that square and that vision grew.”
In 1977, the FOB started a Christmas tree lighting ceremony that has become an iconic Island event, with caroling and hot chocolate and the arrival of Santa Claus, like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. After Mr. Healy died in 1982, the square was named after him.
Maintenance, and raising the money to pay for it, is now the main focus of the FOB. “We used to take care of the gardens ourselves, but we’re too old for that now,” Ms. Sylvia said. “We hire the Crossland brothers, Bernie and Mark, to take care of the landscaping. They do a magnificent job.” Other members enthusiastically agreed, also adding kudos to Richie Combra and the highway department.
One of the biggest sources of funding for the FOB is the Christmas cards they sell every year. The cards are reproductions of a painting done by Jacob Knight, originally for the cover of Yankee Magazine in 1994, that depicts a fantastical version of an Oak Bluffs Christmas eve, with flying horses pulling Santa’s sailboat high above a snow covered Ocean Park, along with many other whimsical touches. The painting was sold at auction for a considerable sum, but thanks to the persistence of Ms. Williamson, the owner, Mr. Krikorian, left it to the FOB in his will. It now hangs in the Oak Bluffs library. The cards are sold at the library and at The Secret Garden.
Private donations are also welcome. Recently, the FOB reached out to Oak Bluffs merchants for funding. “I sent out a letter and asked people in the business community to make a 5-year pledge, anything, $10, $25, $100,” said Ms. Balter. “Last year we took in about $2,000. We know that this year, we should have that amount coming in. Hopefully this will keep going and catch on. Like it says in the letter, beautification is good for business.”
“Gerry DeBettencourt left the Friends of Oak Bluffs $10,000 in her will,” said Ms. Sylvia. “It’s to be used for beautification in David Healy Square and Ocean Park. That was a big help.”
“We have to put her bench up,” said Mr. Ross.
“Yes we do,” said Ms. Sylvia.