Updated Sept. 19
Ed Jerome, president of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, died unexpectedly on Tuesday.
Jerome, 71, was shellfishing in Sengekontacket when he suffered a heart attack, according to several sources, including Tisbury harbormaster John Crocker.
It was Jerome who opened this year’s Derby at headquarters in Edgartown, thanking the crowd for its endless support and enthusiasm. The annual event began on Sept. 9, and continues through Oct. 13.
“We are all one big family; I enjoy seeing the same faces year after year, as well as new ones from time to time,” Jerome told The Times the morning of opening day.
The Derby is one big family, and now that family is in mourning.
“It is very sad; he was a great friend to the community and everybody. It’s a pretty sad day,” Joe El-Deiry, chairman of the Derby, said. “He was definitely a big pillar in the Island community. We were just at the Kids’ Derby the other day.” El-Deiry called Jerome “an awesome person” whom he has known for the past 15 years.
Jerome served as the principal of the Edgartown School for 26 years, retiring in 2005 and taking people out on fishing charters with Wayfarer Charters.
MVTimes editor George Brennan reported that people attending the Tisbury selectmen’s meeting were stunned at hearing the news.
On Wednesday, friends and family of Jerome gathered at Derby headquarters to exchange embraces and kind words. Amy Coffey, a Derby committee member and close friend of Jerome and his family, attempted to go about her business helping people weigh and fillet freshly caught fish. “It’s what Ed would want,” Coffey said. “He would have wanted the show to go on.”
Coffey explained how Jerome was able to effortlessly intermingle his different passions in everything he did. “He was a compassionate educator in all his different activities, whether it was fishing, sailing, or anything else for that matter,” Coffey said. “His time as the Edgartown School principal showed through in all that he did.”
One thing Coffey said was an unforgettable trait of Jerome’s was his ability to make everyone feel relevant. “He really cared about other people’s success. If you fished with him, he would really want you to catch that fish; he just knew how to make people feel special,” she said.
Sometimes major community figureheads can be polarizing, Coffey said, but not Jerome. “No one had a bad thing to say about him; he was loved by everyone he met,” she said. “The only thing bad I can think of is that he was too good of a fisherman!” she said jokingly.
Adam Darack, director at-large for the Derby, said Jerome was “universally loved” by the entire Island. “If you knew Ed, you were really his friend. He always had this way of drawing you in,” Darack said. “He was such a compassionate person.”
Darack said it is a tragedy that Jerome is gone, and everyone will miss him. “But he died doing what he was really passionate about,” he said. “He was too young, and obviously it’s never a good time to go, but he passed away doing one of his favorite things, during his favorite time of year — the Derby.”
Times fishing columnist Janet Messineo wrote in an email that she was with Jerome Tuesday morning for two hours, and is distraught. “It is a difficult time for all of the committee and participants. We all loved him dearly,” she wrote.
Derby treasurer Chris Scott said he and others involved in the Derby were still processing Jerome’s death.
Jerome was “instrumental” in saving the Derby when it transitioned from being an event sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce to becoming its own nonprofit entity, Scott said. Under his leadership, the Derby has given out $500,000 in annual scholarships.
John Custer, principal of the Tisbury School, member of the Derby committee, and its former chairman, said he’s known Jerome for about 35 years, and they were close friends. “I’m kind of at a loss for words. I’m very fortunate to have known him for a long time. He was a mentor in many, many ways, especially when I got into teaching. He’s the sole reason I joined the Derby committee. He was incredibly generous, witty, kind. He was a joy to be around. I’d like to think I learned a lot from him. It’s a big loss for the Island. Ed was second to my father in terms of influence on my life professionally and personally,” Custer said.
Jerome put together a book, “An Amazing Story of the Vineyard’s Derby: Twenty-Five Years of Paintings, History, and Fishing,” with painter and longtime friend Ray Ellis.
Jerome purchased the Derby for $1 from the Chamber of Commerce, which could not continue to support the growing event. Jerome assumed the role of Derby president, set up a governing board of directors, and established the Derby as a nonprofit, conservation-conscious organization.
“It’s a great legacy, among many that he leaves behind,” Scott said. “Ed was one of my oldest and dearest friends. I wouldn’t have been involved in the Derby if it hadn’t been for Ed. We fished together a lot. We’re going to miss him terribly. We’re going to miss him every day.”
A message was posted on the Derby’s website Tuesday: “It is with extreme sadness that the Derby Committee shares that longtime Derby President Ed Jerome passed away unexpectedly today. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and legion of friends during this difficult time.”
There was an outpouring of more than 200 comments and counting on the Derby’s Facebook page. People shared stories of how they knew Jerome as a teacher, a friend, and a master fisherman. A bouquet of flowers was placed on the handle of the weigh station’s sliding door along with a picture of Jerome, and a note saying, “RIP to a wonderful man and a beautiful soul you are loved and remembered by all XXOO.”
Staff members Lucas Thors, George Brennan, and Rich Saltzberg contributed to this report. Updated with more comments from friends. – Ed.