Extraordinary Lives of Ordinary People: A conversation with Dan Waters.

Gabrielle Mannino

On March 25, the first Extraordinary Lives of Ordinary People conversation was held at the West Tisbury library, an event sponsored by the library in collaboration with The MV Times.

Extraordinary Lives of Ordinary People is the brainchild of West Tisbury resident Alan Brigish. Returning home on the ferry one day, he struck up a conversation with a stranger and was fascinated by the person’s backstory, and it occurred to Brigish that if you scratch the surface of almost anyone on the Vineyard, you should be prepared for a good story. Kicking off the series was a conversation with Dan Waters of West Tisbury.

In the course of the conversation, Waters spoke of his experiences growing up as an American citizen in Brazil; feeling like an immigrant upon returning to the States; Waters’ fascination with printing presses; his experiences as town moderator of West Tisbury; and his latest project, putting Martha’s Vineyard in a time capsule.

Below are some highlights from Waters’ conversation.

What was it like growing up in a foreign country?

When I was going on 4 years old, my family moved to South America; my dad worked for General Motors in overseas operations and was transferred to Venezuela. We lived there for about six months. My parents spent a lot of time getting ready to move, they learned Spanish, and then six months later, they were transferred to Brazil. So for the rest of our lives we were doomed to hearing our parents speak Portuguese with a Spanish accent.

We came up to visit the U.S. every three years. My mom would buy three years’ worth of clothes, pack a steamer trunk … we’d buy Christmas presents years ahead of time. Then everything would go on a freight ship and take six months to get back to Brazil.

So in a way you were caught between two cultures.

There’s a phenomenon called a “third culture kid,” I’m a third culture kid. It’s a child who spends more than six months or a year of their childhood out of their passport country, so you lose your sense of rootedness in your own country. It’s a phenomenon that psychologists and therapists have studied. If you’re an American overseas for any length of time, you get used to saying goodbye, to losing things, and I find that to this day I have a hard time with the mourning process.

What I found was that I had very little in common with anyone in college. I spoke perfect English, but what my family had kept alive in Brazil was the America of the 1950s that they grew up in. So I didn’t experience the 1960s, it happened while I was away. In college my generation spoke a slang I didn’t understand and referenced TV shows I had never seen. They had all these in-jokes and types of humor I didn’t find particularly funny.

What brought you to the Vineyard?

I met my husband-to-be in my freshman year at Wesleyan. Hal was born and raised on Martha’s Vineyard. When break time came, I had nowhere to go and I stayed on campus. After that, Hal brought me to Martha’s Vineyard. I’d never been here before, and then after I graduated in ’77 I moved here full-time.

Did you always know what you wanted to do in life?

I think I was born to be a printer. When I was in ninth grade, my dad, who wanted me to be a lawyer, brought me to New York for two days of aptitude tests. They gave you test after test, and had blocks to rearrange at a table, and they were trying to match my interests with interests of people who were successfully employed in different fields. The report that came out was very technical, and there was one profession where I was in the 99th percentile — and that was a printer.

What kind of work did you do on the Vineyard?

I was looking for work, and lo and behold the Vineyard Gazette was advertising for an assistant pressman, and I had learned a few things at the Tisbury Printer (where I was currently working) so I thought I could do that. Unfortunately, I was going from something (at Tisbury Printer) that was about the size of a mimeograph machine to something that was about the size of a Greyhound bus; it could print 14,000 impressions an hour. Jon Sawyer, who was the pressman at the time, said to me, “Don’t ever let it know that you’re afraid of it.”

The road to becoming poet laureate of West Tisbury

I learned to set type, and one of the things we needed at the Gazette were fillers … four-line or eight-line poems that would run at the bottom of a story to fill up space if there wasn’t an ad, so I started writing my own poems and setting them in type and signing them DAW — I didn’t know it would turn into a thing, but it did.

Acquiring a printing press

Tisbury Printer had grown to a place that had its own typesetting equipment … I knew enough about photo typesetting, so I was hired there. One day an old gentleman came in and said, “I’ve got an old printing press that’s been sitting in my house in Chilmark in my living room, and my wife said, ‘Either I go or the machine goes.’” He thought about it, and that’s how I ended up with a printing press. It was made by the people who make Colt firearms … apparently when they weren’t making guns they were making printing presses.

Becoming town moderator of West Tisbury.

I never envisioned becoming moderator; then, nobody envisioned Pat Gregory getting killed. Pat had been moderator for over 20 years and was killed in 2014, and I think we all felt like someone had kicked us in the stomach … it was a terrible blow. Pat was someone who brought the town together at the town meeting and was synonymous with the way we treat each other. There was a hole in the town, and by then I had spent enough time in political life (as a West Tisbury library trustee, pitching the town for funding to build a new library) and I knew enough about myself to think I could possibly do that.

Aikido and conflict resolution

I started studying aikido in 1987 and ended up with a second-degree black belt, and learned that there are some skills you can learn that work well, metaphorically, in other areas. Part of the black belt test is something called Free Style. You are attacked by five people from all directions, and you learn that you have to turn them into one person. If you deal with one person at a time, and if you set the tone and pace of the conflict, you will bring peace to the situation, and ultimately that’s what you want to have at a town meeting — you want to arrive at a conclusion that everyone thinks is fair, and that’s what a town moderator does.

The latest project — archiving Martha’s Vineyard

I’m photographing everything, making a family album of Martha’s Vineyard basically. We owe it to the people not born yet to leave behind a picture of the Island that we can understand, a visual map. We live in a time where we overphotograph everything. Everybody has a cell phone, and everyone shares this information on social media, but all this information is being stored digitally … what’s going to happen to digital information in 100 years? The digital information that exists now, it’s being stored on your hard drive, and we’ve all had hard drives crash. Companies who put information in the cloud are just temporary custodians … chances are you’re going to outlive them.

So I’m using film instead of digital photography. And the photographs will be stored at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, where the new facilities have climate control that will keep things cold and dry and in the dark, protected from light — the ideal conditions for film. This project aims to photograph places, interiors of places, and people and people in their interiors and work spaces. It will be like putting these images in a time capsule, so people 50 or 100 years from now can look back and say — that’s what it was like back then.


To see the Dan Water’s video, go to the story posted on the MV Times website. There will be further Extraordinary Lives of Ordinary People conversations at the West Tisbury library, occurring on a quarterly basis throughout the year. This series is brought to you by the West Tisbury library and The MV Times.


  1. No doubt Dan’s the man in some circles, nothing personal, but I see nothing extraordinary here! Just a guy that had some usual life challenges and business choices.
    remarkable, exceptional, amazing, astonishing, astounding, marvelous, wonderful, sensational, stunning, incredible, unbelievable, miraculous, phenomenal, prodigious, spectacular are the things that make someone extraordinary!

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