Seeing West Tisbury through 30 years

Fred "Ted" Morgan and John Early
Fred "Ted" Morgan, former Edgartown selectman, thanks Mr. Early for his job well done. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By Hermine Hull - April 26, 2007

Issues before the town of West Tisbury in 1977 included the final renovation of the Dukes County Academy into the Town Hall, a new police cruiser, acceptance of the town road system, purchase and access to the South Shore and Lambert's Cove Beaches, and the police moving into the old Town Hall building at the Mill Pond. The West Tisbury School had just been built, a Planning Board had been formed to begin writing the town's zoning bylaws, and the Martha's Vineyard Commission was newly empowered to look Island-wide at regional planning issues. This was the first year that John Early served as selectman.

John was described in those days as a hippie with long hair and an earring who had returned to town after four years as a Peace Corps volunteer in India. Despite the outer package, many saw a "young, bright, well-educated guy with the potential to do good things for the town." That description came from Dick Burt, with the caveat, "I had no idea it would last 30 years." Dick, along with Bill Haynes, Roger Silva, Sumner and Jane Baker, and Beverly King, encouraged John to run for selectman and ran his campaign in the low-key way that characterized politics in those days. Dick gave a cocktail party to introduce John to the neighbors. There were probably a few conversations on the porch at Alley's. The upshot was that John Early beat Peg Littlefield by 12 votes and began a 30-year presence as a leader in our town. John Alley and Everett Whiting were the other members of the board.

John Early
With all eyes on him, Mr. Early accepts a gift from the town, a gold tie tack. On his right is a miniature white pickup "getaway" truck, given to him by Cynthia Mitchell.

John remembers most of his early meetings as dealing with dog hearings, a particularly difficult and troublesome aspect of the job that would require a certain amount of tact and discretion. "Nobody believes their dog ever misbehaves," said John of these "most constantly difficult issues." Dogs were always in chicken coops or garbage; most notable among the miscreants of the day was a St. Bernard named Mary who brought home whole lunch boxes from the school or from work crews. It was funny that when I called John Alley for his recollections of the major events of the time, his first comment referred to "significant dog hearings that gave you a lot to think about after a meeting."

Town meetings were held at the Grange Hall in those days, before moving to the school where they are held to this day. Much of the town's business was conducted informally at the garage, Alley's, or the post office. John spoke eloquently of his belief that in a small town we are privileged to have "the smallest, most local form of government. Everyone has absolute access to their elected officials and direct input." But he added, "It was very perilous to go to the post office at certain times."

John Early and Beth Toomey
West Tisbury police chief Beth Toomey and Mr. Early.

He came into office to serve the townspeople of West Tisbury, not with any preconceived agenda. "I don't think I really had an agenda. I had projects that were important to me. I came to be a selectman, not with any agenda. There's a good deal of following in leading." For anyone who doesn't know John, you need to know that he is a quiet, thoughtful man who listens and doesn't necessarily say much. When he does, you can trust that it has been carefully considered and reflected upon. He told me about going to visit Everett Whiting for his advice and guidance about deciding to run for public office. John described their conversation as being of "little substance but of great form." I can imagine the two of them sitting on the back of Everett's truck in the driveway of The Parsonage, not saying much but understanding each other's intent, then amiably heading inside for a beer.

One of the questions I asked John to talk about was "What do you need to be a selectman?" He answered in three parts. "First," he believed, "you need a sense of the history of the town, what went before and how it got to where it is now. Second is a sense of place. West Tisbury is special, a real community where people really care very much and take care of each other. The Fire Department, EMS, the Church. When something happens to someone in West Tisbury there is a tremendous outpouring of support that doesn't happen in communities where roots aren't as deep. Third, you need a sense of humor."

John had grown up here, a summer kid from Connecticut who was the child of a summer kid from Connecticut. His mother began coming to their home in Seven Gates in 1922. John spent every summer here except for the four years he was in the Peace Corps. When he returned from India, he planned a few months respite that turned into his life. He joined the Fire Department, made custom fishing rods, drove a dump truck, and then he worked as a carpenter before becoming "a contractor and builder." He became too busy to fish or to make fishing rods and his life became an adult's life: work, family, friends, plus his dedication to town and Island affairs.

John had hoped that his last achievement in office would be the restoration of the Town Hall. "The whole issue of the Town Hall was the main reason I ran for my tenth term. It was important to get to a resolution. I feel we know where we're going now." He had served on the Building Committee and acknowledged that the town wasn't ready to deal with the issue until now. He expressed high hopes that the town will support the upcoming Town Hall project and see it through.

Through all the changes, the growth of the town, the increasing formalizing of town government, John Early has been a steadfast presence. West Tisbury has gone from being a small town without a lot of rules where people were accustomed to doing pretty much whatever they wanted to, to having to accommodate the restrictions that development and growth and time tend to bring. As a member of the Martha's Vineyard Commission and of the All-Island Selectmen's Committee, he has participated in the formulation of "the bigger picture," of looking at the Island as a regional entity as well as preserving the character and uniqueness of West Tisbury. Although expressing a frustration at trying to get people to participate in the political process, even at this small, relatively open local level, he commented on how surprising it is that so many people watch the videotaped meetings on MVTV. He felt that public participation in the process is key.

John talked about the people he has worked with over the years, "Most important" was the way he described them, from fellow selectmen, town employees, volunteers who serve on all the town's committees and boards. He only served with six other selectmen: John Alley, Everett Whiting, Fred Fisher, Cynthia Mitchell, Glenn Hearn, and Skipper Manter. He earned the respect and trust of all who knew him and worked with him, no small accomplishment given the personalities of small town politics. John Alley credited him as being "quiet, methodical, he did his homework, and was a nice guy to sit next to for 27 years."

I asked John what he thought when he was sitting at the table on the stage at his last Town Meeting. "How much the town has changed and how much it's the same. That this is the last time I'd have this view of Town Meeting."