William “Tony” Ratcliff

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“To the left of the steering column there is a little blue board attached to the dash; on this there is a white push-pull button. Before starting the car, this switch MUST BE PULLED OUT, then turn the key and the car should start. (Reason for new ignition system: The old one burned out and this was the cheapest way to fix it). The gas gauge is very far off. When the needle reads just over half, you have 12 gallons of gas, maximum capacity of [the] tank.  When the needle reads ¼, you have about 7 gallons of gas. The gauge only works between ½ and ¼.  From there on you must play it by ear. (Reason: I ran over a large rock and put a great dent in the gas tank. Do not worry too much: it doesn’t leak noticeably). Oil consumption: This is the worst part about the car. The engine burns approximately 1 quart of oil every 40 or 50 miles, sometimes more….When you check the oil and find that it is low, which is usually the case, you must fill the silver can about half full and put it in the oil filler hole found on the top front of the engine. There is a rag attached to the radiator on which you can wipe the dip-stick, found on the left lower side of the engine, right behind the distributor, that thing with all the wires coming out of it. Brakes: When I got the car, the brakes were nil, so I had new ones put in.  I had them tightened…so they are pretty good. It is possible to shift from third to second at 50 mph, but not advisable above 45.  This is a very effective way of slowing down. DON’T RIDE THE BRAKES. BE CAREFUL AND DON’T SPEED TOO MUCH. THAT IS MY PRIVILEGE. Clutch: The clutch may seem all balled up…but it is perfectly all right, as long as you don’t ride it… It engages about ¾ of an inch from the floor to shift. There are no dashboard lights.  They burned out along with the ignition system. The light hanging on the headlight switch is a spotlight.  Just plug the plug into the lighter socket and it is a quite powerful spotlight. I have spent a good deal of time and money on that car and consider it mine. I would appreciate it if you would not lend it to anyone and be very careful with it.

Such were some of the instructions imparted by the young William “Tony” Ratcliff, a long time Vineyard resident who died on April 21, 2016 at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, to his older sister Lydia who had returned home and was in need of a temporary loan of the seriously dilapidated white Chevrolet in question. It was the Art of Making Do, of improvisation, taken to the highest level. And to a degree, those instructions encapsulated the very personality and traits that he carried through life: he was passionate, precise, peremptory, creative. And, yes, there was just a touch of the autocrat. The affair with locomotion had already begun a lot earlier in his life, though, beginning in the mid-1950s when he and his brother John were gifted an Eshelman, the short-lived two-seater vehicle for youngsters, on the market for scarcely eight years, which rumbled along at 15 mph, top speed. It was bright yellow and its plate steel frame rather homely, but to Tony, it represented a golden opportunity to make a splash. He lost no time in commandeering the Eshelman, submerged in his father’s bulky raccoon coat, a pint-sized girlfriend at his side, exuding panache from every pore: this was his very own Rolls Royce and he was out to make the most of it.  His brother John competed, usually unsuccessfully, for equal usage. At another date in his teens, there would be a Vespa in his fleet, after which other budding interests pushed locomotion aside.

Tony Ratcliff, son of John D. Ratcliff and Marie-Francoise (Chrissy) Tonetti Ratcliff, was born on August 21, 1945 in Palisades, New York, on the banks of the Hudson River. The seeming traits of a Leo — action-oriented and familiarity with the limelight — soon appeared.  During regular summer visits to Martha’s Vineyard where his parents had a house at Chappaquonsett, he settled happily into the rituals of swimming, fishing, clamming and currying friendships amongst the youngsters of the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club where he learned to sail. At age seven, such home-grown adventures were about to expand vastly. On December 27, 1952, his family boarded the famed SS United States headed for Europe. Scarcely a few months old, it was the fastest and the largest ocean liner in operation on the Atlantic. On leaving the ship at Le Havre, the plan was to pick up a pre-purchased black Citroёn in Paris and head for Italy, to look for a house somewhere along the Riviera. Tony, if not the others, took the Great Unknown in his stride: aboard the ship, elbowing his way into a bingo game, he scooped up winnings of $97, no mean sum in the 1950s. This unheralded bounty was promptly splashed out on ice creams, milk shakes and candy for all and sundry young girls aboard the ship. His status thus enhanced, the exploits were to continue.  Arriving at Rapallo, just south of Genoa, near to where the family was to settle, he caught sight immediately of the colourful little donkey carts stationed at the beginning of the seaside promenade. Decorated in bright designs and drawn by miniature Sicilian donkeys, they proved irresistible to this young American. Before he could be stopped by the donkey-keeper, he was off, part centurion, part charioteer, tearing along the promenade, reins taut and whip cracking, urging the stunned animal on in full canter.  It set the tone for the following memorable years in Italy.

The family settled into the 19th century Villa San Giacomo, in Santa Margherita Ligure, one of several spectacular houses on the estate of the princely Durazzo-Centurione family. The grounds featured glorious formal gardens, trimmed hedges, fountains and statuary. The interiors of the villa in which he lived were no less grand: marble flooring, frescoed ceilings, stiff-backed brocaded settees, majestic staircases. The Ratcliff boys carved out secret huts for themselves in the undergrowth and explored abandoned tunnels on the property. Together with one of their sisters they were enrolled in a local school, the Istituto NS del Carmine, run by an order of nuns. In a rare gesture of acquiescence, he dutifully donned the black smock, white lace collar and floppy yellow and black polka-dot cravat required to enter the classroom every day. The nuns, charmed and indulgent, were tolerant and forgiving of this young Protestant hellion in their midst.  It was there in school, as well as with new-made friends on the dusty soccer field below the Villa, that Tony quickly picked up and mastered the Italian language.  For good measure and to blend in more smoothly, he abandoned his American crew cut and let his hair grow to a more Italian length, lacquering it down with brilliantine. Later, he dyed it a vibrant red. Never settle for understatement where hyperbole is possible seemed to be his credo. He quickly befriended a wide range of local people from fishermen and accordionists, such as the beloved Tito, to carpenters and he learned to converse with them in their own Genoese dialect. Language was never an obstacle to him: it came to him like osmosis. And it was the carpenter who, in Tony’s own words, opened up yet another new world to him, making him “fascinated by his craftsmanship with wood and all hand tools. He would let me sand a chest top or pedal his lathe when he was turning a chair leg.” Those very same skills would serve him well in later life.

A handful of other schools, both in America and Italy ensued. Perhaps in a bow to his own father’s trade, he then entered the eminent school of journalism at the University of Missouri at Columbia, most likely the oldest formal institution of its kind in the world. Although a gifted writer throughout his life, he quickly concluded that journalism was not his metier and moved on to the University of Louisville in Kentucky. It was there that he met the first of his three wives, by whom he had two children, Jennifer and Jacob.  After a brief job in Rockland County, New York, close to where his parents lived, Tony was drawn for the first time to farm life and moved north to Whitehall, New York to apprentice on his cousin François Hyde’s dairy farm. The transition fit like a glove and for years he took with gusto to the open-air life and the hard daily grind of tending to demanding animals.  Indeed, he later bought his own farm in Washington County at Argyle, New York where he kept a herd of thirty milking cows, rounding out his income with the sale of surplus hay. To further help pay the bills, he enrolled in a course run by the Singer Company to learn how to repair sewing machines.

If a passion for cars is part of the rite of passage for young boys, it was to be a love of animals that next followed in Tony’s life. It was on the Argyle farm one day while out haying in his fields that he discovered an abandoned fawn, its mother presumably dead. At that time Tony was in between marriages and “Bucky” became his adopted companion, moving between the barn and the house, providing company at breakfast and every meal thereafter. The fawn became his “white-tailed shadow” and he recalled in a short memoir that “Bucky seemed happy enough with all the new ‘Moms’ [cows in the barn] but I was still Number 1.”  Having won his way into Tony’s heart and home, Bucky went on to charm the rest of the nearby neighbors, showing up at the local school, various shops, a farm dealership. The romance ended sadly when a trigger-happy hunter shot the deer, despite lettering on his flank that boldly read “PET.” Luckily, the void left behind was partially filled by a pair of young goats that his sister Lydia had given him on an extended loan. One of them, “Sunshine” was to be seen at the end of the day occasionally drawing on a shared joint with Tony out on the front stoop. Tony remarried around this time to his second wife, a childhood friend from Palisades, becoming a father to his third child, the late Benjamin Ratcliff, who died in November 2000, at age 24, on Martha’s Vineyard in a car accident.

When his second marriage failed, “my life took an abrupt change,” as he put it in the memoir. He leased out the farm and turned, or rather returned, to Martha’s Vineyard for solace and a change of pace. It allowed him the time to take stock on whether to continue indefinitely in farming or turn his hand to other pursuits. Other pursuits won out.  He found sufficient work painting houses, lending a hand to builders and repairing sewing machines to keep himself comfortable.  Assorted relatives of his, Tonettis and Macys, still lived there on and off, as did some childhood friends and the pace of life there was far less fraught. He cut his ties altogether with Argyle and at the end of the school year there, brought his son Jacob to live with him while Jennifer and Benjamin remained mostly with their own mothers.

In another “abrupt” but entirely welcomed change, he fortuitously crossed paths at a local Island shop with an acquaintance from his many childhood summers on the island, Deborah deBettencourt. Before long, they lived under the same roof, sharing antics with an engaging, busybody raccoon.  They took their vows on a sunny day outdoors, officiated by a close colleague of Deborah’s. It was a long and happy marriage and together they built two homes from scratch populating them with a stream of lovable dogs and cats. Returning to the skills learned many years earlier in the workshop of his beloved Italian mentor, Tony built many of the handsome household units such as corner cabinets and tables that still grace their home today and witnessed many lively and memorable family evenings over lobsters, good wine and the occasional bouncy dish of handmade potato gnocchi, an all-time favorite of Chef Tony. His artistry also came through in the occasional whimsical items such as a prize-winning replica of the Islander ferry used as a bird-feeder.

The early symptoms of emphysema signalled that their travelling days together were numbered. With that, Deborah and Tony set off with his brother John and niece Sarah for what would be a final farewell to Italy, in the spring of 2000. He wanted to personally show Deborah all the places of his childhood.  They added Rome to their itinerary as well, to visit his sister Alexandra and to see some of the spectacular scenery to the south along the Amalfi and Positano coast where his own maternal grandmother, who often summered at Menemsha, had once set foot and drawn artistic inspiration.     

Defying medical predictions, Tony held out with his worsening breathing and mobility problems for sixteen years — more than had been anticipated by his doctors — in large measure thanks to the care and devotion of his wife. But when the time finally came, his very last words to his brother John from his hospital bed were, “I’m ready for the Big Trip”. By his own request, his ashes are to be scattered on the Middle Ground, his cherished spot for fishing.

Tony is survived by his wife Deborah of Oak Bluffs; his children Jennifer of Louisville, Kentucky and Jacob of Oswego, New York; his sisters Lydia of Chester, Vermont and Alexandra of London, England; and his brother John of South Nyack, New York.