“I hate to talk about my friend like this,” Jill Robie-Axtell, CEO of the YMCA, said sitting across from me at her conference room table on a snowy Thursday afternoon. “He was pretty amazing.”
Tony Lombardi died on Friday, Dec. 8, in his Morgan Woods apartment in Edgartown. His heart gave out, according to Ms. Robie-Axtell, but he died on his own terms. “He had a sense of knowing,” she said. “Tony knew he wasn’t going to live to be 90.”
Mr. Lombardi was 59 years old when he died. He suffered a stroke last December, slowing down his routine, but he lived a life dedicated to service. Through 2016, he was the program director of Alex’s Place, a teen center at the YMCA. Before that, he ran Camp Safe Haven, an Island-based group supporting kids with HIV. Before that, he managed Wintertide, a coffee house and music cafe at Five Corners. And before that, Ms. Robie-Axtell suggested I reference the source himself.
In 2011, MVTV aired an hourlong interview with Mr. Lombardi.
“I consider myself a work in progress,” Tony began. “I certainly have lived a life that by some standards would be considered unusual. But by my standards, it’s considered absolutely necessary that it played out the way it has so far.”
Tony grew up in Kingston, and said he suffered a tremendous amount of abuse in his youth that he tried to escape.
“I didn’t have the luxury of therapy,” he said. “There weren’t advocates on every corner that were saying, ‘We should help this child.’ That didn’t exist.” Drugs were his escape, and Tony was a heroin addict before his 18th birthday.
He moved to Boston, and got involved in the punk rock scene, spending a lot of his time at a bar called the Rat, in Kenmore Square.
“It was an exciting time for me, because it masked the addiction I was involved in,” he said. “There wasn’t a person in my circle who wasn’t using heroin, so it didn’t seem like a problem.” That all disintegrated, and he ended up sleeping in the tunnels of the Orange Line below Chinatown. “When I reached that level of suffering, that’s when things changed in my spirit,” Tony said.
In 1984, he reached out to his parents, and began recovering at Gosnold Treatment Center in Falmouth. While going through withdrawals, a vision changed his life. A figure dressed in Hawaiian shirt came to his bedside, introduced himself as Maui, and told him, “If you don’t do the exact opposite of what you have done to this point, you will die. I promise you.”
He left Gosnold and moved into Miller House treatment center, where he became acquainted with the deaf community.
“I was fascinated by deafness,” Tony said. “These were the people that struggled the same as me, without the benefit of vocal communication.”
He began to study sign language, and after getting clean, he was hired as the coordinator of the deaf program at Miller House. After a story about him was published in a journal, MVRHS reached out to Tony and offered him a job.
“I couldn’t imagine working with kids, I was just this lowly street addict, and thought I’d only be working with my kind,” Tony said. “I couldn’t imagine anyone trusting me with keys to a building, let alone children.”
He came to Martha’s Vineyard in 1987. “It was a godawful place,” he said. “Surrounded by water, I felt stranded and isolated. I felt no community support. Let’s just say the spirit of the Island hadn’t touched me yet.”
And then Wintertide happened. In 1988, a coffee house opened in Vineyard Haven. Tony helped expand the music cafe to a new, year-round location at Five Corners, where Tropical restaurant is now.
“Suddenly, I had a community. Suddenly, I was creative. Suddenly, I mattered to people,” Tony said. “I started to fall in love with Martha’s Vineyard, and the possibilities that this beautiful place affords us.”
Wintertide hit the ground running.
“That’s how Tony and I first connected,” close friend and co-worker Laurel Redington said. “In the early ’90s, there was a national phenomenon of coffee houses where singer-songwriters would go and perform. Tony opened up the stage not only to musicians, but to comedians, actors, poets, dancers,performance artists, you name it.”
Wintertide became one of the most well-known coffee houses in the country, and it was featured in Billboard Magazine. “It was hysterical,” Tony said. “We were just a rinky-dink old building, recognized nationally.”
Tony moved on from Wintertide to work on another project close to his heart. The tragedy of HIV and AIDS was another part of his awakening. “I shared needles many times per day, and most people I shared needles with are dead,” Tony said. “It’s a miracle I’m alive.”
Outraged by the sad and misunderstood AIDS epidemic, Dan Butler approached Tony one night at Wintertide and asked him if he wanted to help bring a program to the Island to help kids with AIDS.
The Safe Haven Project launched its first season for kids infected by the virus in 1994. The program evolved into Camp Safe Haven, where Tony would work for the next 16 years.
Tony was also involved in Y Without Walls, which was how the YMCA operated before it opened up its space in 2011. Tony became a trusted figure among the Island’s youth, and was hired as the program director of the facility’s teen center, Alex’s Place.
“He was the light of that place,” Ms. Robie-Axtell said. “I don’t think anybody could have created what he did.” He turned the space into a hub for kids, using music as the driving force.
“You walk into that space and hear the sound of coexistence,” Tony said. “It’s doesn’t matter if you’re into sports, the arts, or whatever, music has the tendency to bring people together. Music is our common language,” Ms. Redington said.
Tony suffered an ischemic stroke at Alex’s Place on Dec. 23, 2016. “He wasn’t able to come back to work in the same capacity, and he knew that,” Ms. Robie-Axtell said. Tony decided to pass on the torch to Ryan Schwab-Doyon, the current teen center director.
“A lot of us saw a bit of a light go out, and I know that was frustrating for him,” Ms. Redington said, “I think it was also preparation for all of us.” His passing was sudden, but not shocking.
“I knew he was never afraid of death,” Ms. Robie-Axtell said. “He would say, ‘I want to go to sleep one night, and not wake up,’ and that’s what happened.”
The day he died was the night of the YMCA Christmas party. “I decided to wear all black, because I felt like he was a member of my family,” Ms. Robie-Axtell said. “While getting ready, something in my head said, You need the velvet scarf. So I went into my closet, found a colorful velvet scarf, and put it on. Tony had a collection of velvet scarves, drenched in cologne. So of course, it was the perfect thing for my outfit. I said to myself, I know you’re here. We’re still connected.”
Ms. Robie-Axtell went to work the other day, and the receptionist said someone turned in a velvet scarf.
“I’ll give it a couple weeks,” she laughed.
“It’s hard to believe,” Ms. Redington said. “We’re all getting visits from him. He has been waking me up every day at 3 am to write.”
Tony had a larger-than-life personality, and was a Vineyard presence — everyone at least knew the name. And if you’re new to the Island like me, and just learning about him now, Tony’s spirit won’t be lost on you — his heart still beats through this community.
“The most important thing to know is that he helped a lot of people,” close family friend Nancy Berger said.
“I never worked with anyone like him,” Ms. Robie-Axtell said. “He caused me to grow, both spiritually and personally. He’s one of the most interesting people I’ll ever know.”
“Tony was Tony — that’s where he began and where he ended. He was a being who wanted to help other beings,” Ms. Redington said.
“Don’t pat me on the back and tell me how amazing it all is,” Tony said. “The message that should come from a life like mine is that anybody can make a difference in the world, and everybody should. And when you make a difference, it shouldn’t be amazing. It should be normal. Not serving, and not helping fellow man — that’s what should be weird.”