John and Shirley Mayhew
John and Shirley Mayhew, close as ever after 60 years of marriage. Photos by Ralph Stewart

Mayhews celebrate 60 good years

By Pat Waring - September 20, 2007

When they met, she was a sweet 20-year-old sophomore at Pembroke, living away from her suburban New York home for the first time. He was a handsome 25-year-old Navy pilot, just home from the war, who had grown up abroad and now was finishing his degree at Brown University on the G.I. Bill.

Last weekend, the boy who shyly proposed in a Vineyard duck blind and the smitten girl who said yes, even though she had no idea what Island life would bring, celebrated 60 years of marriage. Surrounded by family, friends, and neighbors at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury, John and Shirley Mayhew beamed as they listened to toasts and tributes and accepted countless hugs and congratulations.

In true West Tisbury fashion, the potluck dinner was delicious and abundant and the atmosphere relaxed and warm, like a big family get-together. Forties swing music filled the air, flowers graced the long tables, and candles glowed.

There were photos from years gone by, a video with scenes from family albums, and an elegant three-tiered wedding cake, which the bride and groom sliced and ate with much ceremony. Beside the cake was a black and white photograph of John and Shirley on Sept. 6, 1947. In her white gown, Shirley was wide-eyed with a resplendent smile, John tall and serious in his dark jacket, as they contemplated their wedding cake and the years ahead.

Deborah Mayhew
Deborah Mayhew, party organizer and emcee.

"The secret is there is no secret," said Shirley on Monday afternoon as she and John relaxed in their cozy living room on the shore of Look's Pond in West Tisbury. "Everyone has to make their own way. It's not easy for everyone. Some times are good, some times are bad; that's what life is."

"I feel blessed," said Shirley. "I'd never heard of Martha's Vineyard before, then we moved here and I had all these wonderful children and wonderful grandchildren."

"My fortune was meeting Shirley who loved the Vineyard too," said John.

"I learned to like the Vineyard," said Shirley. "I had no idea what it would be like, but I was so in love I would have gone to Timbuktu."

This love story began when the pair met at a college mixer. They recognized each other from poetry class. After dancing and talking poetry they went out for a beer. They hit it off, but John already had a girlfriend.

"We got along, but I had no expectation of seeing him again," said Shirley.

When summer came, she came to the Vineyard and took a waitress job at the Harbor View Hotel and gave John a call. They shared some good times, including a party in the Quansoo woods and a romantic visit to the Gay Head Cliffs by moonlight.

Back at school they began dating regularly and John invited Shirley home to the Vineyard for Thanksgiving. He proposed during a duck-hunting trip. He was concerned about how he would make a living and not very sure of himself when he said, "You wouldn't marry me, would you?" But Shirley didn't hesitate to accept.

Katie Ann Mayhew
Katie Ann Mayhew serenaded her grandparents.

"I thought she'd be crazy if she did," laughed John. "But we stuck it out for 60 years. We had three wonderful children we love to death."

Shirley said she hadn't dated a lot, thinking, "I'll know when the right one comes along." And she did.

They were married the fall after John's graduation. Shirley had one year to go, but abandoned college for marriage, returning for her degree only years later.

John loved the Vineyard where generations of his family had lived and he was determined to find a means of support here. He turned to the sea, first oystering then swordfishing. The amount of fresh fish on the Mayhew dinner table for so many years has become a treasured family joke. Shirley was thrilled when Everett and Nancy Whiting presented them with a leg of lamb at Christmas - something different for dinner!

Times were not easy. They lived in the Whiting chicken coop, set up as basic living quarters. Next it was the First Congregational Church Parsonage, a pretty old house, but lacking modern comforts. Soon there were three little ones, Jack, Deborah, and Sarah. Shirley was a stay-at-home mom, something she is grateful for today as she sees young mothers heading out to work. They built their house on Look's Pond in 1957 and it became a favorite place for neighborhood children who would skate on the pond in winter, row around and catch turtles in spring, and swim in summer.

Jack Mayhew
Jack Mayhew counted himself lucky to be born into the family.

"It was a poor man's swimming pool," laughed John.

West Tisbury was a small, close-knit community, a place where children could safely roam and play. There was little to do in the winter but visit friends for dinner. Musicales, with all the men playing instruments, were popular family gatherings and the Mayhews began throwing an oyster stew party on Christmas. Shirley said she is delighted that both traditions continue.

Then as now, making a living on the Vineyard did not come easy. Concerned about supporting his growing family on a fisherman's pay, John signed on to teach math at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School in 1959, the year it opened. Shirley returned to college, coming home with her degree at age 40, and got a job teaching sixth grade then junior high language arts at the Edgartown School. Today they get friendly greetings from their former students everywhere they go. Both retired from teaching in 1986.

Shirley always wanted to travel; John, having traveled extensively as a youth when his father worked for Standard Oil of New York, wanted to stay put. John loved to fish; Shirley got seasick on a boat. These days John stays up late; Shirley's practice is early to bed, early to rise. A recipe for divorce? Hardly.

"You can summarize marriage in one word, compromise," said John. "It's a roller coaster," agreed Shirley. Both said they'd managed to accommodate each other while doing things they enjoyed too.

Polly Brown
Polly Brown offered a heartfelt toast.

As the easy flow of memories continued, the laughter, jokes, and teasing comfortably shared, it was clear that although the Mayhews insist there is no perfect marriage, this long-lasting and solid union certainly comes close.

They share a wholehearted love for their family, are delighted that both Jack and Deborah live in West Tisbury and that Sarah, who lives in California, is spending this year on the Vineyard. Although Shirley years ago had regretted not having the money to take her children off-Island she eventually fulfilled her wish to travel and took her three grandchildren on adventures far and wide.

And they love West Tisbury and the life they've made here. "I'm so lucky I dropped into this community, it is so caring and so special," said Shirley.

Dinner over, the tributes began with Deborah reading her mother's recollection of meeting her husband-to-be. Deborah had been the main party planner with plenty of help from Jack and Sarah, and other family members pitched in too. Sarah documented the event with her camera.

Jack said he felt like a lucky lottery winner. "I won the privilege of being born into the family that John and Shirley started.

"When you grow up in a good family in a good community, the bad times just become good stories," he added.

His daughters Lucy and Caroline, away at college, wrote memories of times with their grandparents from the smell of fish to Shirley's peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and family birthday parities.

Sarah Mayhew
Sarah Mayhew photographed her parents' anniversary party.

David Ferraguzzi recalled good times with John and Shirley including annual Black Dog dinners to celebrate the April 27 birthday that he and Shirley share.

A moving appreciation came from Peter Huntington who related that after his mother died leaving his two young children with no Vineyard grandparents, "Shirley said, 'don't worry, John and I will be your children's grandparents,' and they really did that."

Verna Lacey remembered jaunts to Peru with Shirley after the pair studied Spanish together, and Herb Custer, former school superintendent and another old friend, acknowledged the Mayhews for their many accomplishments, not the least of which is staying married for 60 years.

"We're honored to have you as role models, as something to shoot for," said Nicole Galland as she and her new husband Darren Lobdell toasted the couple. The newlyweds had enlisted John to officiate at their ceremony.

Making it all official, selectmen Glenn Hearn and Dianne Powers presented a proclamation designating Sept. 16, 2007 John and Shirley Mayhew Day.

Katie Ann brought tears to many eyes with her soulful rendition of "I'll Be Seeing You," accompanied by Mark Mazer on guitar.

Polly Brown, a distant relative and close friend, offered a toast to the couple, one most often heard at weddings: "Here's to health, wealth, and the time to enjoy them." All raised their glasses with a heartfelt "hear, hear."