John Early's quiet, deliberate leadership is celebrated by constituents and colleagues
John Early recalled how a former West Tisbury selectman, the late Fred S. Fisher Sr., described him when he joined the veteran town leader as a colleague 30 years ago: a hippie with an earring and a pony tail who crawled out of the woodwork. Then with a deadpan face, Mr. Early held up a photograph of his 1970s look. It is printed in the back of the 2006 annual town report, which has been dedicated to him.
The photo of Mr. Early at the front of report shows a 50-something man with a traditional, short hair cut and glasses, and it suggests the ways he has grown into a more traditional businessman and community leader. Humorous references to Mr. Early's hippie days and his semi-annual switch from shorts to jeans persisted at his retirement reception last week, but other comments by officials and townspeople expressed a depth of respect and admiration for his role as a selectman for the past 30 years. Mr. Early announced his intention to retire from the post earlier this year.
John Early hugs former selectman Cynthia Mitchell. Photo by Ralph Stewart
The reception last Wednesday followed Mr. Early's last selectmen's meeting and drew about 75 people, including other Island selectmen, town officials, friends and family. He commented wryly, as people streamed into the new Ag Hall, that there must be a lot of people interested in the shellfish committee appointments, the only item on the official agenda.
Mr. Early presented his fellow selectmen with a new gavel to replace the one he received from family members when he first took office in 1977. Inscribed with his name on that gavel were the years 1977-1980. After the official meeting, several people spoke about Mr. Early's contribution to the community and his influence on them.
"John has been the rock of our town," selectman Glenn Hearn, his colleague for the past five years, said. "He's represented the town and the Island as a whole on the Martha's Vineyard Commission." Mr. Early was the town's representative to the commission for 20 years, and he served on many other boards.
Former selectman Cynthia Mitchell, who served 12 years on the board with Mr. Early, related a story of the selectmen's unilateral decision to open up Lambert's Cove Beach to the public, believing that doing so was what everyone would want. It turned out they were wrong.
A large group of present and former Island officials, friends, and well wishers gathered to honor John Early.
But, she said, Mr. Early is one who knows how to admit a mistake and will "let the people speak." She called him the "master of quiet understatement." And, likening Mr. Early to the "steady, patient, predictable" person who drives a getaway truck, she presented him with a miniature white pickup, much like the one he drives.
Former Edgartown selectman Fred "Ted" Morgan, who recalled spending many hours in meetings of the county advisory board with Mr. Early, each alternating with the other as chairman, said he thought one of them might break former Chilmark selectman Herbert Hancock's 36-year record of service. "I have the greatest admiration and respect for you," he told Mr. Early.
Chilmark selectman Riggs Parker told him, "You've set a hell of an example for us trying to fill your shoes."
West Tisbury Police Chief Beth Toomey called Mr. Early "the best, easiest employer I've ever had." Joan Jenkinson, animal control officer, gave an emotional thank you to Mr. Early, who has been her boss for 17 years.
And, Russell Smith, Island legislative liaison for state Rep. Eric Turkington, presented Mr. Early a citation from the Massachusetts General Court on behalf of Mr. Turkington. Mr. Smith emphasized that the idea for the citation came from the people Mr. Early works with.
Noting the realities of the selectman's role, Mr. Smith said, "A selectman's job is not something you do to accrue friends. It requires commitment and patience. It gives you complaining rights." Mr. Early has acted as a mentor and an example to many, Mr. Smith added.
Continuing the hippie theme, selectman Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter told how 30 years ago, when Mr. Early first ran for selectman, Mr. Manter asked his father for advice on whom to support. His father said he wouldn't vote for anyone with an earring and a ponytail. Mr. Manter didn't vote for Mr. Early that year, he confessed, but did so in all subsequent elections.
Mr. Manter continued the fond, appreciative tone of Wednesday's gathering, mixed with some gentle ribbing. He waited for Mr. Early to open a gift from townspeople, wrapped in a formal white box from C.B. Stark. It contained a plastic tag that said, "This way to West Tisbury." Careful about his timing, Mr. Manter waited for Mr. Early's and the audience's reaction, and then he produced the real gift in a similar box: a gold tie tack with the seal of the town of West Tisbury.
In his reserved, unassuming style, Mr. Early gave much credit for achievements during his long tenure to the town staff and others he has worked with as a selectman. "I couldn't have had a better town or better group of people to work with," he said. Admittedly at a loss for words, he said, "I am tremendously honored by the people here today. It's the reason I could do this job for 30 years."
Mr. Early noted that he had served as a selectman with only six people over the 30 years. "That says something about the town. It's not a volatile place," he said.
Those six included Mr. Hearn, Mr. Manter, Ms. Mitchell, and former selectman John Alley, who served 27 years and spoke briefly, and Mr. Fisher and the late Everett Whiting.
"I have mixed emotions," Mr. Early continued, momentarily overcome. "I wish my parents were here to see this. I got a lot of this from my Dad."
He also thanked his former wife, Dianne Powers, sitting in the front row, for bringing the photo from his early years. After her win in last week's election, Ms. Powers will take Mr. Early's place on the board of selectmen.
Mr. Early promised his admirers that he is not going anywhere and will continue to be active in the town, especially to meet what he called "a desperate need for more low and moderate income housing. It's the most critical factor for how this community goes forward."