Thomas R. Goethals Jr. of West Tisbury, former professor of literature and president and executive director of the Nathan Mayhew Seminars, died Sunday, Jan. 31, at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. He was 95.
Tom was born in Boston in 1920, the eldest of three sons of Dr. Thomas R. Goethals, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Harvard Medical School and a leading private practitioner of obstetrics in New England, and Mary A.W. Goethals of Washington, D.C. He was also the eldest grandson of Major General George W. Goethals, the chairman and chief engineer of the Isthmian Canal Commission, and Effie Rodman Goethals of New Bedford. Maj. Gen. Goethals was responsible for the construction of the Panama Canal from 1907 to 1914, and was the first civil governor of the Panama Canal Zone thereafter, from 1914 to 1916.
In 1889, Mrs. George Goethals, Tom’s grandmother, first brought her husband for a visit to the Vineyard, where she had often visited as a girl. He became so enamored of the Island that he bought a lot on Crocker Terrace, later Crocker Avenue, and built a house there in 1894, the first of five generations (so far) who have continued to live on the Island.
On his grandmother Effie Rodman Goethals’ side, Tom was also a collateral descendent of William Rotch (1847-1930), known as the “father of West Tisbury” for his role in chartering West Tisbury, then a part of Tisbury, as a town in 1892. Tom summered in West Tisbury beginning in 1931, the year his parents purchased the 18th-century Cottle saltbox in Lambert’s Cove.
Tom graduated from the Roxbury Latin School in the West Roxbury section of Boston in 1939, and from Harvard College in 1942 before enlisting, under the Selective Service Act, in the U.S. Army. He was sent to officer candidate school at Fort Sill, Okla., and commissioned as a second lieutenant in the field artillery in May 1943. He first served in the 99th U.S. Infantry Division in Mississippi and Louisiana, under the command of Brigadier General Edwin L. Sibert, also a summer resident of Lambert’s Cove. Later he was an intelligence officer in General Omar N. Bradley’s tactical headquarters, 12th Army Group, during the Northern European campaigns of World War II. Capt. Goethals earned five battle stars, the European African Middle Eastern Service Medal, and the World War II victory medal for his service in the European theater. He was awarded the Bronze Star by General Bradley for meritorious services during military operations in the European theater. He was honorably discharged in 1946.
He became an educator, author, and editor in the years to follow. Under the G.I. Bill, he earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. in literature at Columbia University while teaching at Columbia College and publishing a novel, “Chains of Command,” in 1955. Thereafter he taught at Sarah Lawrence College and the City College of New York, among other colleges and universities; served as an editor for such publishers as the Grolier Society, Frederick A. Praeger, and the American Society of African Culture; and wrote the introduction for Collier Books’ 1962 edition of Stephen Crane’s novel “The Red Badge of Courage.” He ghost-wrote “Africa Unbound: Reflections of an African Statesman” in 1963 for Alex Quaison-Sackey, then the permanent representative of the General Assembly of the U.N., and its first black African president.
In 1971 Tom returned to his boyhood home on the Vineyard, where he’d summered most of his life before World War II, and established what he hoped would become a small college with a reputation for high academic standards, the Nathan Mayhew Seminars of Martha’s Vineyard, named after an earlier Tisbury teacher. There, for nearly 17 years after the institution’s opening in 1975, he supervised all phases of the academic and cultural programs offered by the Seminars, and taught classes in the humanities as well. After his retirement in 1991, Tom continued to teach on the Island as a member of Clark University’s adjunct faculty, and several of his students remained in his classes for 15 years studying literature with him. At his death, he was completing a full biography of his once celebrated grandfather.
Tom was a member of the Society of Cincinnati, Harvard University’s Study of Adult Development (also known as the Grant Study), and the Gen. George W. Goethals American Legion Post No. 257. He was predeceased by his youngest brother, Peter R. Goethals, and by his first wife, Gregor T. Goethals. He is survived by his younger brother, Henry W. Goethals of Chevy Chase, Md.; his son, Robert T. Goethals of Rockaway Beach, N.Y.; his daughter, Rosalind A. Goethals of New York, N.Y.; his granddaughter Angela Goethals Soder and her husband Russell and their daughter, Brooklyn, of Philadelphia, Pa., and his granddaughter Sarah Goethals and her son Kobe of Charlotte, N.C.
Interment will be private.
Condolences may be sent via Chapman, Cole and Gleason funeral home. Donations in Tom’s memory may be made to the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, 57 David Avenue, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568 or sheriffsmeadow.org.