Polly Brown's spirit celebrated
Earlier this fall, the five members of the Sprit of the Vineyard award committee met to select the individual they thought should be the tenth annual winner of the award. As always, they were intent on honoring an Islander for his or her contribution of time, talent, and energy to the community.
Polly Brown of Vineyard Haven, who helped to establish the spirit award during her tenure as president of Hospice of Martha's Vineyard, sits on the committee and was present for the discussion.
Ms. Brown had a candidate in mind, whom she was promoting with her usual vigor. With a reputation for reasoned judgment and wise counsel, when Ms. Brown speaks, people listen.
Polly Brown. Photo by Ralph Stewart
This meeting was different. The other four members of the committee said no to her candidate, despite the fact that there were no other nominations submitted.
The committee members then told Ms. Brown that she was the 2007 Spirit of the Vineyard award winner.
Ms. Brown, reserved and modest, outlined for the committee members the various reasons why she did not think she deserved the award. But they were very familiar with Ms. Brown, including her perseverance, and would have none of it.
"We had to browbeat her," said committee member Melinda Loberg. "It took four of us to override her objections."
At a breakfast Saturday morning at the Howes House in West Tisbury, Ms. Brown received the award she helped found to honor and encourage volunteerism. Those who know her insist no one is more qualified, no one has done more, and no one is more deserving of being listed with the distinguished group of people who received the honor before her.
Ms. Brown has served in many capacities, on many Island organizations, including Hospice of Martha's Vineyard, Martha's Vineyard Hospital, and Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. She has also volunteered her time to the Permanent Endowment Fund, Meals on Wheels, Vineyard Haven Yacht Club youth sailing programs, and countless individual acts of charity that few ever hear about.
Last week, in an interview with a Times reporter the day before she received her award, she said her current passion is establishing a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) on Martha's Vineyard.
"The Island is a big community, we have to take care of each other. We have shared history. The older people are part of the character of the Island, they are the history of the Island. We can't afford to lose them," said Ms. Brown.
Polly Brown with former Spirit of the Vineyard Award recipients Kerry Alley and Ron Rappaport. Photo by Lynn Christoffers
Her studies show some Island residents would move into a retirement community campus complex immediately, if it were available. Others would much rather stay at home, but they need help with transportation, grocery shopping, home maintenance, and other things. Instead, more and more people are moving off-Island to find those kinds of services.
"We've decided to have a two-pronged approach," said Ms. Brown. The first part is a referral service, which should be ready for launch in December or January. "You call a number and say, I need this kind of help, or that kind of help. We look at all the resources on the Vineyard now, and we refer people to what's available. If there isn't anything available, then we find a way to provide it.
"We also plan to build a continuing care retirement community, which is independent living, with assisted living in place, and a nursing home either on our campus or at Windemere, for the full continuum of care. I'm not sure when that's going to happen, but we're working on it very hard."
Her many admirers have few doubts that Ms. Brown will eventually succeed in building a retirement community. It's just what she does. She sees a need, and gets to work.
"As far as I can tell, she spends virtually every waking hour doing something good for people," said Daniel "Putter" Brown Jr., Ms. Brown's brother. He says her selfless ways were evident when they were growing up.
"She was always an assiduous saver," said Mr. Brown. "If we got a dollar of allowance, she would save hers. I would spend mine right away, and then I'd come back to her and she would lend it to me. But she would never remember to collect on her loan. She is, to her core, a good person. There is never a consideration of what's in it for her."
Ms. Brown worked as a telecommunications executive before a mid-career shift to the legal profession. She graduated from Harvard Law School in 1985, and soon found herself working closely with her husband. It was soon after his death that she became a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. Her wide experience in the business and legal worlds has earned her much respect.
"From a leadership point of view, from an organizational point of view, she's smart, she's intelligent," said friend Hope Callen. "She gets things done really, really effectively. She's there to help, in any capacity she can."
Ms. Brown spent much of last week deflecting praise, steering the attention instead to causes she believes are important.
She takes her joy not from the spotlight, but from the thoughtful essay of a high school student on a scholarship application, or sincere thanks from someone who needed a ride to a Boston hospital, or from using her experience to help resolve a thorny issue of medical ethics.
In her mind, helping one helps all.
"The Island charities are usually strapped for cash," says Ms. Brown. "The more help they get, the better off everybody is. Besides that, it just feels so good to help out."