Paul Watts retires after 35 years of Martha’s Vineyard banking

And now, it’s time to move on.

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John Washbrook, with Paul and Diane Watts, sharing a laugh. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Over his more than three decades as an Island banker, Paul Watts has shown himself to be an open and steady man with an eye for the task at hand.

Last Thursday morning, on Mr. Watts’ final day as Edgartown National Bank’s chief lending officer and executive vice president, a half dozen files were centered on his desk at the bank, awaiting his final scrutiny.

He was squaring it all away after a dizzying round of retirement parties that the bank and other Island groups had held for him over two weeks.

“It’s all been a little overwhelming,” he told a reporter. “I’ll look these over today. We’re on the 8:15 boat tomorrow morning.” Mr. Watts and his wife, Diane, were heading to their retirement home, 150 miles up the coast on Long Island, Maine, in Casco Bay, just off Portland. The couple have two daughters, Jhenn Watts Pillsworth, who displays her photographic art at the Field Gallery in West Tisbury and Kimberly Watts Peaslee, who uses her Ph.D. in chemistry and a law degree in her practice of intellectual property law in Concord, N.H., while raising granddaughter Natalie, 11, acknowledged as the “queen of the world” by her grandfather.

The Watts are not expecting any problem settling in on Long Island for several reasons. “We’ve been preparing for this a long time, bought the cottage 20-odd years ago, made improvements every year and now it’s a completely winterized three-bedroom house,” he said. With the permanent arrival of the Watts, Long Island’s population will rise to 222 people.

And Mr. Watts is an experienced Mainer. Born in the U.K., he emigrated with his parents as a 2-year-old to Thomaston, Maine, 75 miles up the coast from Portland as the crow flies.

Then too, Diane (Williams) Watts was born and raised in Portland, where she met young Paul, who was a student at the University of Maine in Portland. “I’d completed two years, and thought if we were going to get married, I’d better get a job,” he said. “Always had an interest in the restaurant business, but the best I could do was an offer as a salad chef.” But the pay was thin, so Mr. Watts kept looking, and found a job at the Portland Savings Bank. “Bottom rung, but I kept working at it, and started moving up the ladder,” he said. One thing led to another, and Mr. Watts became a respected commercial lender in the Portland banking community.

“The bank was having trouble, and I knew the FDIC [Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation], the banking regulatory agency, was going to close it. I decided to be one of one unemployed banker rather than one of 375 unemployed when the FDIC closed it, so I began looking.

“I was blessed to have worked with Jim Lambert in Portland, and he’d moved to the Vineyard. He ran into another mutual friend, Jim Lund of the Martha’s Vineyard National Bank, in the beer line at Fenway Park. Jim Lund was looking for a commercial loan officer and Jim Lambert said ‘Well, Wattsie is looking for a job.’

“So that’s how I got here in 1980. The Martha’s Vineyard National Bank became Compass Bank, then Sovereign Bank, and now it’s Santander Bank,” he said.

Mr. Watts managed his commercial loan portfolio through the internal changes and the increasingly volatile Island economy until six years ago, when the popular and successful Island banker became a downsized banker in the quixotic decision-making world of big business.

“We were OK. I’ve always been a big believer in setting aside money, particularly in our 401(k) retirement account,” he said. He had also saved a copy of his original contract, which guaranteed him a severance package.

He didn’t need to spend it, because Fielding Moore, president of Edgartown National Bank, installed him as chief commercial lender and executive vice president before the week was out.

As Mr. Watts recounted his 46 years in banking and his life on the Vineyard, it became obvious that while Mr. Watts was being steady on Friday morning, the booming public voice became more muted as he reviewed, in an interview, just what living here has meant to him and his family. “The sense of community. Customers have become true friends,” he said.

“Rotary has always been a big part of my life, very important,” he said. Island residents will always remember that Mr. Watts, as president of the Martha’s Vineyard Rotary, organized and took part in what can be described as several arduous expeditions to the mountains of Peru to bring medical care, wheelchairs, and technical help to poor villagers.

His version of the events shunted praise away. He remembers best that “a kid from one of those villages moved here, and I got to stand up for her at her wedding,” he said. Mr. Watts served on the boards of many nonprofits, including the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital during its building campaign, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and the Dukes County Housing Authority.

He is the treasurer of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, and has served with Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Tisbury Business Association.

Last Friday, Mr. Watts was soldiering, but his face was reflecting the inside substance of community building, of having faith and keeping faith with customers who turned into friends, of knowing and sharing the lives of Island residents.

“Please make sure you convey that we don’t want to leave this place and people. It’s just time. Forty-six years is enough. It’s time,“ he said.