Otis was born on the Island on July 16, 1936, the son of Percy Leighton Burt and Emma Patricia Doolan Burt. From the beginning, Otis was not afraid of living life to the fullest, nor of venturing forth on his own. This was evidenced early on when at the tender age of three, he was found toddling down Main Street, Vineyard Haven, naked as a jay bird, having made his way all the way down from his father’s poultry farm on West Spring Street (where Garden Gate nursery school is today); a phone call from the First National market alerted his mother that Otis had made a successful getaway. This set the tone for the life he was to live, and it was a fairly epic life lived mostly within the confines of this small island.When asked about him 70 years after he was her student, Alma Spearwater Benson, responded, “Oh, he was quite the little dickens.” And so he was.
The family moved to Arrowhead Farm in 1940, then to 7-Gates Farm in 1945 when Otis’s father became the farm superintendent. Later the family moved to Music Street where Percy had bought the very decrepit Harry West farm, referred to by Otis’s grandmother as “Percy’s Folly” in her journals. In spite of her concerns for her son’s sanity, it turned out that buying 50 acres on Music Street in 1948 was a pretty good investment.
Otis was a true son of the up-Island community, fishing, beach-combing, and exploring with his brother, Dick, and assorted friends. It is likely that these adventures were viewed with a more tolerant and benevolent eye than they would be today, whether it was riding home from the north shore with WWII ordnance in their bicycle baskets, or the time they carted a dead deer out of an up-Island property in the rumble seat of Otis’s car. As a teenager, he got rides to the square dances at the Chilmark tavern in the back of Ernest Correllus’s truck. There he met his future wife, Ann Raymond, a lifelong summer resident from Lexington. Little did Ann know what she was getting into when she saw this handsome young guy across the room.
After graduating from the Tisbury High School in 1954, Otis attended Umass/Amherst, paying his tuition by driving a tractor spraying power lines in the area, as well as working as a short-order cook at a diner in town.
Otis and Ann were married in 1958, and after a short stint for Otis in the Air Force, they returned to the Vineyard, Ann working as a registered nurse at the hospital, and Otis working for Everett Poole, running the Texaco station in Menemsha. Everett remembers that between Otis’s quick wit and his own sharp sense of humor, there were days when it wasn’t safe for most people to cross the threshold into the Texaco. Otis then went to work for carpenter Lawrence Winterbottom, followed by several years with Roger Engley before hanging out his own shingle. He became one of the Island’s most respected builders, and over the years many of his crew went on to become talented and successful builders in their own right, not to mention one longtime building and zoning inspector for the towns of Chilmark and Edgartown.
Otis and Ann built a house on part of the West farm on Music Street, and proceeded to fill it with four children. Despite of the marriage ending in divorce in 1969, they remained very much on board with each other about certain things, espcially that their children would work hard, get educated as best they could, and make their own way in the world, which all four of them have done. If any of the kids ever thought there was an end run to be made around one parent or another because of the divorce, they were quickly and firmly disabused of the notion. Otis was very proud of his family, and particularly proud of his four grandchildren, whose pictures cluttered the surface of his desk and countertops. It sometimes seemed that he couldn’t quite believe that he had anything to do with all these people being in his life, this family he and Ann had made.
For the last 15 years, Otis rented out his house in Oak Bluffs, first spending summers in a cabin he built up in Madrid, Maine (one town over from New Vineyard, Maine), then moving out to Boothbay Harbor on the coast. He loved Maine because both the land and the people reminded him of the vanishing Vineyard life and community that he had grown up with. Wherever he went, he always managed to cobble together a “family,” which in Boothbay was centered around The Chowder House on the harbor, where he spent many afternoons playing cribbage, visiting with friends, and telling stories.
Friendship and kinship with Otis didn’t suffer for lack of clarity: if you were his friend, you knew it, and if he didn’t care for you or something you had done, you knew that too. He liked nothing better than doing for the people that he cared about, showing up with an extra car to loan, or with his crew to frame a roof for someone, loaning money or giving a job to someone in need. These gestures of friendship came back to him in spades, from his many excellent and true friends far and wide, right up to the end of his life. His family so appreciates the thoughts and good wishes sent his way over this last year. He loved people, and he was loved in return.
Otis is survived by his former wife, Ann Burt of West Tisbury, his four children, Percy Burt II of Vineyard Haven, Molly Burt Reed (Christopher) of Boston, Prudy Burt of West Tisbury, and Patrick Burt (Sandy) of Oak Bluffs and four grandchildren, Olivia and Colby Reed of Boston, and Caleb and Emma Burt of Oak Bluffs. He is also survived by his brother, Dick Burt, and his sister, Shirley Burt Howell, both of West Tisbury, and numerous nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by an infant daughter, Julie Ann, by his parents, Percy and Pat Burt, and his well-loved stepmother, Peg DeLys Burt.
As Dad wished, there will not be a memorial service, but we hope that you will remember him, each in your own way. He was truly one of a kind and we will miss him like hell.
Donations may be made in his name to Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard, P.O. Box 1748, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.