Ways to spot real Vineyarders: They drive “Island cars.”
When traveling off-Island, they need to get their Island car to the mainland, and back again.
Therefore, at some point in the past 44 years, they’ve probably talked to Bridget Tobin.
Bridget is the go-to Vineyard contact at the Steamship Authority, and if you have ever, even once, driven off the ferry, she has probably waved cheerily to you. If you’ve ever urgently needed to get your car across at short notice, chances are Bridget is the one who helped you get it there. She’s not the only agent or manager who does this, but she has become the one people know and cherish. She has achieved that rare status of being recognizable by a single name, like Madonna or Cher. (Her unseen presence is ubiquitous: When I was younger, I thought Bridget was a family friend who happened to work at the SSA. Eventually I came to realize she is a family friend. She is every family’s friend.)
After more than four decades of service to the Vineyard population, Bridget retires (mostly) this week. When people heard of her impending departure, the Facebook page Islanders Talk overflowed with praise and affection. Bridget is not on social media, but her husband’s assistant printed out the comment thread for her — all five pages of it. “I almost started crying,” she said. “It was overwhelming.” The responses I received in the first hour I asked friends and family for memories of Bridget helping them out would be longer than this article. When people have family emergencies, deaths, births, illnesses — Bridget Tobin gets them where they need to go.
“The hard part is detaching myself from helping the Island people, because I have been here for 44 years, and I’m very attached to everyone. I’ve been there through their good times and bad times. It’s not that other people don’t help them, I just know them, I can tell by looking at them that they need us. You can call me and I’ll know what to do. I’ve watched people grow up, I knew them as kids, and now they have kids. People drive by and call out, ‘My father loves you!’ Especially this last month since they’ve heard I am retiring. I love that. And I do remember them.”
While it seems like she has been at her post since time immemorial, even Bridget Tobin had a first day on the job. It was in January of 1974. Back then, the Woods Hole terminal served all ferries to both the Vineyard and Nantucket. A Falmouth native, Bridget Burkett needed a job after graduating from high school, while she went to school at night. The Steamship Authority was hiring booking agents. This was before computers, so reservations all had to be booked over the phone and filed manually. “I knew every name of everyone who traveled, because there weren’t that many back then,” she says. “I filed all their names, so when they came up to the counter in Woods Hole, I knew them. When I first started there, it was like family.”After eight years booking reservations, she transitioned to a customer service job, where she implemented the practice of actually traveling on the boats to see how passengers were doing en route.
During her years booking reservations, she heard — “because of course you get to know people over the phone” — about an available rental overlooking Vineyard Haven, and she moved across the Sound, commuting via ferry to the Woods Hole office.
That’s not the only significant phone-born relationship in her life. “I met my husband [Matt Tobin] on the phone,” she said. “Then I met him at the fair — he happened to have a booth [selling plants], so I finally met him in person.” After three years of dating, they got married. Matt now owns Tea Lane Nursery. So between them, their marriage covers surf and turf.
Bridget kept commuting to the Woods Hole terminal for years, until she became pregnant with her first child (Joseph, now 35) and decided she wanted to stick closer to home. An agent job was opening up in Vineyard Haven. She interviewed, competing with 12 men for the position, and got it. In her practical, robust, Yankee manner, she says, “We’re still struggling with the women thing, but they realized I could do the job, and things worked out.”
She remained an agent until the early ’90s, when Bob Clark retired and she took his place as manager of both the Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs terminals. After years in this position, as she neared potential retirement, the SSA decided to split her job in two, making Richard Clark (Bob’s nephew) manager of the Vineyard Haven terminal. The Oak Bluffs terminal is closed until May, when Bridget will return part-time.
Bridget herself is now free to travel more, and to visit her daughter Emma, who lives on the West Coast.
So that’s a summary of Bridget Tobin’s job history. But it barely scratches the surface of her vocation of Ferry Whisperer.
When she started out, there were few enough regular travelers that she really did know them all. Amazingly, she still knows most of them, despite the swelling ranks of year-rounders. But it’s not just that she knows them. She genuinely loves them.
“I just happen to be one of those people who loves people,” she says. “I’m lucky I have that personality.” She attributes some of her behavior to her mother (“a good woman, who brought us up with good manners and to be compassionate”) and her first boss at the SSA, April Young. But most of it is simply Bridget being Bridget. “I remember people’s names and kids growing up. I smile all the time, I welcome people, I see them off. I love waving to people coming home. They love it too! I think the little things make a difference. We have a lot of commuters. I became a very familiar face.”
But she also emphasizes, “I’m not a one-woman show. I have a great team. It’s really who you’re working with that makes you or breaks you. This summer I had the best crew I’ve ever had. A lot of them come back to O.B. every year, and that’s key. You really have to know your port well.”
This has been a challenging year for the SSA — particularly the month of March, which saw an unprecedented number of mechanical breakdowns, exacerbated by four nor’easters in a row and sundry other unfortunate events. Bridget is neither aggrieved nor defensive when talking about the rough spots. In true form, she focused on what had to be done, and how best to do it:
“What people didn’t see was behind the scenes, us figuring it out. If the M.V. goes down and we replace it with the Katama, we lose some space, so we were juggling that, and then the nor’easter came, and we’d lose a day. But whoever spoke up to say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got surgery, I’ve got to get across,’ of course those people got taken care of. I was so frustrated because I wanted to hear everyone’s stories. One guy said, ‘My mother died,’ and I said, ‘OK, you’re going.’ I was lucky, I had family in Falmouth, so I gave up my reservation [for her own medical appointments] so somebody else could have it. My family picked me up.”
Over four and a half decades on the job, Bridget has amassed countless golden moments to remember. Again and again she says the best thing about the job is being there for people at the neediest times in their lives. When I asked her about favorite memories, she recalls a day when she was in Customer Service, traveling with the Uncatena from Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven (if you remember the Uncatena, you probably need reading glasses), “one afternoon, coming off my shift, dolphins followed the boat all the way into the harbor. It was just amazing.”
But most of her memories are about the people. She loves the Camp Jabberwocky kids, she loves when the MVRHS football team “would come home winning the Island Cup and the whole Island would come down with fire engines. It was spectacular.”
While she is looking forward to having the freedom to travel, she already knows there is no place like home. “Every time I travel, I confirm this is the place, I just love this community and this Island.”
Dear Bridget: The feeling is mutual.