Tom Langman, man of Menemsha

Fifty years of fishing and life in Chilmark.

In 2004 Tom Langman won the Derby — and a new truck. - Stacey Rupolo

I’m a sucker for Island-related license plates, so when the Washington, D.C., plate, “MNEMSHA” pulled in front of me on Basin Road, I ran over and asked to photograph it. That’s when I met Tom Langman, who was kind enough to invite me over for a chat. On the day of our meeting, I parked and walked through a stone wall adorned here and there with mostly red propellers, salvaged from minor accidents throughout the years. Mr. Langman isn’t home yet, but I’m invited in and made welcome to look around until he returns from the Menemsha Market.

Tom’s car

My first question to him: When did his family began coming to the Vineyard? “My mother came here about 1950,” Tom explains, “persuaded by friends from New York. She rented a house on South Road for a year or so, and then bought land from her dear friend Eddie Greenbaum, who was once a general in the Army [during World War II].” Tom, who was born and raised in Manhattan, was 13 or 14 when he, his three younger sisters, and parents started coming to Chilmark.

His mother, Anne Simon, was a noted environmentalist who wrote “No Island Is an Island: The Ordeal of Martha’s Vineyard” in 1973; “The Thin Edge: Coast and Man in Crisis,” in 1978; and “Neptune’s Revenge: The Ocean of Tomorrow” in 1984, as well as other socially and environmentally conscious books. Tom fondly recalls, “She did a lot of her writing right here in the other house, the main house.” Morris K. Udall and his family stayed with the family in the 1960s. “One day my mother suggested to Udall, Why not make the Gay Head Cliffs a national monument?” Tom tells me. “He said that sounded like a good idea. And about three days later, a group from the Interior Department appeared.” The rest is history.

Tom learned to fish from his grandfather, who owned a lease on a salmon river in Canada. “I was lucky to be able to go up there with him,” he tells me. Although Tom never made salmon flies, he did make his own flies when they started coming to the Island.

“I started out fishing on the jetties in Menemsha,” he tells me. He got a small 15-foot boat, then a 19-footer, and stayed with the 25-foot Boston Whaler he still uses today.

Tom’s career included working for his stepfather Robert Simon Jr., who developed the community of Reston, the first interracial community in Virginia. Tom moved on to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, where during the year he spent working for the governor in Hawaii he also learned deep sea diving (which he has taught). Later, he represented New York City in Washington, D.C., and helped find money to develop the South Street Seaport, the Intrepid Air and Space Museum, and Astoria Film Studios.

In his retirement, Tom fished his first Derby, and decided to get a captain’s license. He says that for many years he was “pretty intense about the chartering, and the fishing too. I would go out in any weather, at night. It was pretty intense fishing. The Derby especially. In 2004 I won the Derby with a bonito, something over 10 pounds. At the end of the Derby, it’s luck.” And lucky he was when the key he chose fit that year’s truck, since traded in for the car he still drives today.

Over the years, Tom has taken out some of the Wounded Warriors Bob and Sarah Nixon host annually at Menemsha’s Beach Plum Inn. Tom’s also an expert fish smoker — bonito being his favorite — though he doesn’t do as much of that as he used to either: “It’s a one-day deal between brining, drying, and smoking.”

Langman liked diving for lobster and fish, but stopped diving around the Vineyard for good “when the water got too cold and visibility diminished.” I ask about interesting things he’s seen while out on his boat. Tom says, “The other day I saw a whole school of dolphin. I’ve seen loggerhead turtles.”

It turns out that the building Tom lives in was originally Dorothy Greenbaum’s (wife of Eddie) sculpture studio, and was renovated only a few years ago; it retains much of its summer light-filled studio charm. The walls of Tom’s home showcase old maps, Derby memories, vintage Vineyard scenes in photographs, paintings, and posters. His three sisters own the house next door, and they all visit, as do their children and their families.

He tells me that one of his best friends has been Jessie Benton, Thomas Hart Benton’s daughter, and goes on to reminisce about working for Everett Poole back in the 1950s when he owned the gas station where Tom worked and the fish market.

Tom laments all the changes he sees on Island: “A lot more growth, a lot more people.” He’s brought his kids and their kids out fishing, but they’ve never shown the same passion he does for the sport. He enjoys taking folks out for tours of Cuttyhunk and the Elizabeth Islands, but no longer goes out in windy or rough weather. He recounts, “Back in the old days before I had a lot of equipment, I used to shut off the engine and listen for a buoy to find out where I was.”