Brief Encounters: Matthew Stackpole - History in the making
He was all by himself when he went outside to dance - to leap and jump actually - in the field that surrounds his West Tisbury home. Matthew Stackpole had just received word from Mystic Seaport that they wanted him to join them in helping to restore the last surviving wooden whaling ship, Charles W. Morgan. So it was with exuberance that he went outside to dance to the elusive melody of things having gone exactly right.
In 1953, when he and his twin brother Christopher were in second grade, the family moved to the grounds of the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, where their father, Edouard Stackpole, former editor of Nantucket's Inquirer-Mirror and a noted historian and author, served as curator. Mystic Seaport remained the family's home until 1966.
Mr. Stackpole's familiar smile widens. "So we left Nantucket and moved into the 19th century. The whole museum lay around us. When I try to explain my eccentricities, I say, 'It's amazing I'm as normal as I may appear because I'm the product of centuries of inbreeding on Nantucket and I grew up in the 19th century." He laughs. "It's amazing I can function in the world around us."
One of the first meetings in his new position as a major gifts officer at the Seaport - he laughs again - was held in the room that was for 13 years his bedroom.
It is rare to witness the sort of historic symmetry that surrounds Mr. Stackpole. His whaling ancestors include members of Nantucket's founding families. One ancestor, Ruben Pinkham, was third mate on the Constitution, buried at sea off the ship in the 1840s. Mr. Stackpole currently serves on the board of overseers for the Constitution Museum in Boston.
And his father, Edouard, twice a Guggenheim Fellow, authored 28 books, most of them focused on whaling and historic ships, including the much lauded, "The Sea-Hunters: The New England Whalemen," and "The Charles W. Morgan: The Last Wooden Whaleship" (Meredith Press, 1967).
"Who I was, was being demonstrated," Mr. Stackpole says. "It was all around me. I never thought about it. My dad did what he did because he loved it. He said, 'Find what you want to do.' That was the model: Trust yourself, and do what you do because you care about it, and think it's important."
And so he does. About to begin a weekly commute to Connecticut, he explains, "Anything I do I need to be part of, to feel it. Breathe it." And he quickly adds, "But the Vineyard is my home, and this community is where I want to be."
The walls, tables, and bookshelves in Matthew and Martha Stackpole's comfortable house are filled with pictures of ships, nautical artifacts and memorabilia, books authored by his father and framed photographs of ancestors, of Martha, his wife of 37 years, and their children, Kate and Thomas.
Settled into a wingback chair in the cozy study, Mr. Stackpole punctuates his rapid-fire descriptions with "Amazing," as he recalls people and experiences. Everything has a story, an anecdote, or some interesting twist, all of which Mr. Stackpole shares with enthusiasm.
There's a framed photo of a 20-year-old Matthew Stackpole balancing on the springstay and port brace 60 feet above the deck of the 108-foot topsail schooner Shenandoah, and he recalls Bob Douglas hiring him in 1966, as first mate on the then three-year-old ship. He continued during the summers of his years as a political science major at the University of Connecticut.
"The schooner changed my life," he exclaims. "She's one of my three ships," he says, completing the list with the names of the Charles W. Morgan, and the Mya, his 50-foot Concordia classic schooner, built in 1939.
He and Martha (a native of Manchester, N. H.) lived on the Mya in Vineyard Haven harbor and chartered it during the summers. "It's a measure of what a wonderful spirit Martha is," he says, "because she had never sailed before." After 14 years, just after daughter Kate was born, they sold the Mya to Ted Kennedy, retaining visiting privileges.
A year-round Islander since 1981, Mr. Stackpole says, "The reason we moved here is because of the people. It's true that the intimacy of good friends sustains me, but take me into a room with interesting people and I'm happy as a clam. I like people. It's been the great people around me who have inspired me."
Mr. Stackpole offers his vitae in terms of the people he worked with as a substitute physics teacher in Boston, an American history teacher at Dana Hall School in Wellesley, and an Island surveyor for Smith and Dowling, Director of Development for the Martha's Vineyard Hospital where he helped establish Windemere, and then as executive vice-president of the David H. Smith Foundation, working on the Moshup Trail initiative, and the development of the Polly Hill Arboretum.
In February 2000, he was named executive director of The Martha's Vineyard Historical Society (Martha's Vineyard Museum). "The museum world was part of my life," he says, "something that was inside me. Certainly it was challenging in a way, but the essence of it, the mission, the reason for its being, was part of my being." He pauses. "To be in a place where you could touch the history of this Island, perfectly touch it, see the diaries and the letters - it was magic to be able to do that."
And without shifting his inflection, he adds, "Institutions change, and institutional evolution and institutional governance happens. It's reality. But the other truth is, you don't have to stay. I mean, each side has a choice to continue or not, and when things change in a way that doesn't make sense to you, then that's the time to leave."
He admits, "I had no idea what I was going to do, but I just felt something would come along. I'm 61 years old, and I'm at a point in my life where I think I bring something to the table."
His criteria remains constant. "I have to believe in what I'm doing. I've always been a part of something that goes beyond me. And I choose to do things that I'm excited about, and that I believe in."