Robert “Bob” Carroll, a son of Edgartown, who with spirit, tenacity, and hard work shed poverty and overcame alcoholism, and went on to become one of the town’s leading citizens and to live atop the hotel he helped resurrect, from where he could survey the town he loved and all he had once owned or remade, died early Tuesday morning in the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. He was 90.
Dishwasher, restaurateur, real estate broker, developer, selectman, county commissioner, raconteur, and for a time newspaper co-owner, Bob Carroll filled many roles over his long life. Never shy, sometimes abrupt, and fond of cursing like a sailor, Bob never forgot his hardscrabble upbringing or lost his resentment, forged in the dichotomy between the summer and winter Edgartown, of those he determined were snobs.
“The Island has had a lot of great characters over the years, but Bob was probably the greatest,” Edgartown town counsel Ron Rappaport, whose mother attended elementary school with Bob, told The Times. “He grew up poor in Edgartown, but never forgot where he came from, despite all the successes he had in life. He lived life to the fullest and left nothing on the table.”
Bob was born August 15, 1924, on South Summer Street, “a poor ragamuffin,” in a room his mother rented for four dollars a week, he told the Vineyard Gazette in a Jan. 19, 2012, interview.
As a young man he did what he could to earn a dollar. It was the Depression, and money was hard to come by in Edgartown.
He joined the Army in World War II and traveled far from home to a small island in the Pacific named Iwo Jima.
The turning point in his life was the day he became sober.
“I was a very bad alcoholic,” he told the Gazette interviewer. “I came from a long line of drunks … When I got sober I started to get respect. I found if I could stay sober I could do almost anything I wanted to do.”
Sober and determined, Mr. Carroll became a successful businessman and influential political leader.
He married Lucille G. Hillman on Nov. 11, 1950. The marriage would produce four children prior to their divorce. He was also married for many years to Rebecca Welton.
In the 1950s he purchased a small coffee shop. He later rented a building on the water that would become the Seafood Shanty restaurant, one of the town’s most popular spots, noted for its singing waiters and waitresses.
In 1965 he bought the Harbor View Hotel. It was not an immediate moneymaker. Author Nis Kildegaard described the turning point in his book, Harbor View: The Hotel That Saved a Town.
“In 1974, with the expenses of buying and expanding the Kelley House weighing heavy on his books, Carroll was closer than ever to violating his personal code of paying every bill on time. But then came financial salvation in the sort of windfall we expect only from Hollywood. A young filmmaker named Steven Spielberg was planning to make a movie on Martha’s Vineyard. Its name was Jaws.”
Bob Carroll estimated that by the time filming was done, he and his various Edgartown enterprises — which by then included the two hotels; the Seafood Shanty restaurant; Edgartown Marine, which helped outfit the boats shooting scenes on the water; and his Carroll & Vincent Realty business, which arranged pricey rentals for key members of the movie crew — made more than $1 million from the filming of Jaws.
Nearly four decades after the success of Jaws, Bob, who was cast as a selectman in the fictional town of Amity, received regular residual checks from the blockbuster film, which to date has earned a total of nearly $2 billion.
The Harbor View Hotel also figured large in Bob’s long-running fight with Henry Beetle Hough, the publisher and editor of the Vineyard Gazette, over Mr. Carroll’s interest in developing his property. Bob just did not like Mr. Hough — a college-educated off-Islander who received the newspaper as a wedding gift — telling him what he should and should not do.
In spring 1984, Bob, in concert with four other Island business leaders, founded The Martha’s Vineyard Times.
“Bob was one of a quintet of Island business and political leaders who founded the Martha’s Vineyard Times in 1984,” Doug Cabral, the retired editor of The Times, said this week. “They believed that the Vineyard needed a newspaper that would take an aggressive interest in the year-round residents and the year-round economy of the Vineyard, both of which they thought were under-represented. Bob was a particular force among the founders, because of his long history in business and Edgartown politics. He was broadly acquainted and affectionately regarded in the year-round and summer communities, and he was personally colorful, generous, opinionated, even profane when it served his purpose. In the 1970s and 1980s, his voice was among the loudest in defense of Martha’s Vineyard, as growth and development transformed the Vineyard from a tiny insular retreat to a carefully planned and populous suburban community.”
A committed civic leader, he was one of the founding board members of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, the Island’s social-services umbrella organization. Even as he aged, he could always be counted on to provide a strong opinion about Island affairs. Asked if he mellowed at all, daughter Sue Carroll said with a laugh, “Not that any of us could see.”
Ever shrewd, when he sold the Harbor View Hotel in 1986, he included a stipulation in the contract that he be allowed to live in a top-floor penthouse until his death. It was a comfortable arrangement that provided him with a wonderful view of the town that he loved and helped make.
Bob leaves behind four children: Sue Carroll (and husband Jerry Grant, Edgartown); Jane Joyce of Edgartown; Sarah Bray (and husband John) of Arcade, N.Y.; Mary Ellen Goodsir (and husband Rohan) of Reading; and seven grandchildren, Robert Morrison, Alex Morrison (and wife Maggie), Adam Joyce, Patrick Joyce, James Joyce, Zachary Bray, and Maggie Bray.
A celebration of Bob Carroll’s life will be held at 4 pm, Saturday, April 4 in the Edgartown room at the Harbor View Hotel.