I read about the death of Vernon Jernegan this past Sunday, and sat for a long time thinking about how much my life changed because of this man.
On the surface, it was a very unlikely friendship. I was a longhaired hippie who got hired to work at K.T. Galley & Co. The majority of these men were Islanders with butch haircuts and very conservative opinions. I think they put me with Vernon because he was the most open foreman in the shop.
I made sure I was always on time, 6:59 am across the shop threshold every day, did what I was asked, and worked hard. At the time I didn’t realize what I was being given: an old-fashioned apprenticeship, working under a master carpenter. Vernon’s rules were simple: If he had to show me something three times, it meant I didn’t want to learn, and our reputation was built by the quality of our work. I thought this was the way everyone learned carpentry.
It wasn’t till I lived in California, applied for a job, and was asked about my experience that I came to understand what it means to be an Island carpenter. On the Vineyard carpenters framed, shingled, installed interior and exterior trim, did renovation work on older structures, jacked up buildings, moved them — basically everything except masonry, electrical, plumbing, plaster, and painting. When I listed this on the job application, he didn’t believe me. My reply was they may have a lot of specialists in California who could do one aspect of construction, but they weren’t carpenters.
Vernon instilled a love of building in me that has lasted these past 44 years — 32 of these years running my own business. He taught me houses — and not just wood, brick, wiring, pipes, and paint. They have a life of their own that begins with the people who build them. When we finish a house, I spend time in the building before I turn it over to the owner, thinking about all of the people who will live there and make it a home.
I don’t believe there are accidents in our lives; Vernon was put into mine to give me guidance, which he did, and I will always be grateful to this man.