Bob and Fran Clay are authentic people, as “salt of the earth” as the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby — an enterprise they have supported for two decades.
Now retired from running the five Clay Family (auto) Dealerships, Mr. Clay, 74, has donated a new truck as a Derby grand prize for the past 15 years. More than one Island winner has been delighted — and relieved — to be able to replace an iffy old truck with a new Silverado.
The Clays have a 60-year history of Island life; they lived on Chappaquiddick for 15 years before relocating to Cape Cod last fall for easier access to healthcare treatment for Mr. Clay’s prostate cancer. “I’m wrapping up treatment,” he said to a Times reporter on a recent visit. “I’ll be fine.” So now they are back on-Island, where they will fish the Derby as always and enjoy the community that is central in their lives.
“My dad brought me here in the 1950s to fish the Derby, and Fran and I have always fished it though we never have won any prizes,” Mr. Clay said. “But we always went to the awards ceremony and saw these little tykes proudly getting their prizes.”
He said he thought that “we need to get involved in this. What if there was a prize that didn’t require catching the biggest fish? So the first couple of years it was run as a lottery. Weigh a fish and your name went in the basket. But people from places like Switzerland and Wisconsin were winning, and we wanted to have local winners.
“Someone suggested that awarding the biggest fish would probably favor Island residents, so we did that, and it’s worked out pretty well,” he said.
The Clays are refreshing, high achievers without ego who work at serving others — things like affordable housing, beach access, and Mr. Clay’s beloved Chappaquiddick Community Center. “We needed that community gathering place,” he said. Indeed. If you’ve lived on Chappy in winter, you know it can be a lonely place.
“I believe deep in my soul that beaches are for everyone,” he said. Noting that waterfront private property belongs to the owner, he said, “Now, I’m not a Communist, but I believe people shouldn’t have to walk the beaches at the low-water mark [beyond the private property boundaries].
“Many towns restrict beach access for other towns’ residents. I’ve noticed that in Barnstable County, where we live, the six towns have a [reciprocity] agreement, providing access to residents of those towns. Might be a good idea to try on the Island,” he said.
Mr. Clay takes the long view of public service. He noted that he has served on affordable housing committees in Edgartown. “I gave my opinion. Sometimes they agreed, sometimes they didn’t. That’s good, helps build character,” he said with a chuckle.
The Clays have also long been rumored to be the source of anonymous gifts to Island families and individuals in tough straits. Neither had anything to say about it during our conversation.
Their passion for the Island has an intriguing backstory involving their relationship. “My dad was a flight instructor in World War II,” Mr. Clay said, “and after the war he bought a small airstrip outside Boston, where he gave flying lessons. In fact, that’s how the auto dealerships began. He gave lessons to a Chevrolet regional manager, who told him a dealership was coming up in the Norwood/Dedham area. My dad entered the car business in 1949.”
A few years later, young Bob matriculated at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. “End of freshman year, I think, this beautiful auburn-haired girl was sitting two seats over and one seat in front of me, so I got to look at her a lot,” he recalled. “I used the Vineyard to romance her. Told her you could fly in and taxi to the beach [in Katama],” he said.
It worked. The Clays have been married for 50 years, with a son, Brian, and a daughter, Rachel, and four grandchildren, Will, 11; Ben, 9; Campbell, 11; and Wilkins, who is 6 years old.).
The Island was an important ally for Fran Clay’s campaign to relocate here. “I grew up in Buffalo. Lake Erie and Niagara Falls were water for me. I was enthralled by the ocean. After we married, we would take the ferry and use a camper Bob’s dad had at Katama. I began fishing the Derby in 1992. Fishing became a big part of my life. That’s how I talked Bob into buying a house in Chappy,” she said.
“We’ll be on the Island chasing albies for the whole Derby and for the awards ceremony,” Ms. Clay said.
Look for them there, as always, quietly supplying the big prize.