Extraordinary Lives of Ordinary People: A conversation with Alan Brigish

Documentary photographer Alan Brigish was part of Extraordinary Lives of Ordinary People. — Gabrielle Mannino

——On June 3, the second 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. The conversation featured documentary photographer Alan Brigish, and was conducted by Island editor and storyteller Susan Klein.

Alan Brigish credits synchronicity as the grace behind his very full life of entrepreneurship and world travel. He hails from South Africa, “born Jewish, but in a very secular household.” His father, Harry, gave the adolescent Alan a choice — a bar mitzvah, which would require a year of learning Hebrew and going to Hebrew school at least once a week, and would result in him being lavished with gifts, or the opportunity to tour England, Italy, Greece, France, and Switzerland with his parents. For Brigish, the choice was clear.

Twelve-year-old Alan had an insatiable curiosity; choosing to travel was an easy decision for him, and the first of many synchronicities. “In 1955 — 10 years after the war — I got to see Europe. It just changed me. That was when my photography started. I still have the album with the Eiffel Tower, the Houses of Parliament, and a game of cricket. It launched me as a photographer.”

Plans to become a lawyer like his dad were upended one weekend when the two visited a farm. The generator that provided electricity malfunctioned, making the lights flicker and the voltage drop. The farmer explained Ohm’s law to the ever-curious boy, and a career path was born. Alan did indeed become an electrical engineer, living at home while attending the university, as was the custom.

He met a young lady, Joyce, in the lobby of his apartment building, and they discovered that her apartment, and indeed, her bedroom, was directly below his, three floors down. Friendship blossomed, though they were both dating others. “I persuaded her father to let me put a little intercom that I had built under her bed and run the wires out through the window, up the side of the building, and into my bedroom upstairs.

“Later that day, she and her father got into an argument, and she started giving him lip. And I said through the intercom, ‘Joyce! That’s no way to speak to your father!’ She looked under the bed; couldn’t find me. Her father was in hysterics. Then I confessed it was just a practical joke, and we decided to keep it.”

On Saturday nights after they returned home, they compared their dating experiences over the intercom. Soon enough, they were dating each other. Brigish mentioned to Joyce that he abhorred apartheid and couldn’t live in the country anymore. Recalling his time in Europe, he was planning “to live in England after graduating … to get out and see what the rest of the world is like.”

Joyce said, “I’m going too.”

“It was one of those synchronistic moments. I said, ‘Well, will you marry me?’ And she said yes! And that was it. I hadn’t even thought about it before,” Brigish says.

They married two years later, and left for England the day after the wedding. Joyce worked as a math teacher, and Alan was a government contractor in the early days of the computer business.

Their first child, Cy, was born with Down syndrome in 1968, after a 40-hour delivery. It was a difficult time, and though they were advised by many to institutionalize Cy (as per the literature at the time), Joyce said, “We’re not going to do that, we’re going to bring him up just like any other child.” And that’s what they did.

Joyce and Alan made a very effective team. “We made the decision to bring Cy up just like everyone else. That simply became the Golden Rule, and there was no moving away from that. Every decision made was with that in mind. Joyce became a huge advocate both initially in England and in Connecticut. Cy currently lives a normal life in Connecticut in an apartment with a caregiver and a friend. He works two jobs, and takes the bus to work. He travels hundreds of miles on his own by train to see his brother and his sister. He lives a normal life and it works, but it took work! That was a choice,” Brigish says.

The couple had another son 17 months later, and Joyce really had her hands full.

One synchronistic day, Alan spied an ad in the newspaper for a position at a company in Stamford, Conn. Over the course of several years, he took the job and moved to Connecticut with his family, moved back to England, had a daughter, then returned to the U.S., where he became head of mergers and acquisitions for a successful company. When the company was acquired, he could see his position was precarious, so he quit.

“My partner and I came up with the idea of an online information service built through advertising, and, at its core, a very efficient search engine. This was way too big of an idea for the two of us, so we decided to start with one particular industry — engineers, because of course, they understand the technology, and they would be willing to change their basic habits to use online search for parts as they were building or designing,” Brigish explained. “We did market research, which confirmed that it made sense. But, the research was flawed. The first people to use online search were not engineers, but lawyers and librarians. It was a nice idea, and we raised capital from corporations and also some venture money. We did that for six years, and then closed it up. After that, I looked for a job for a couple of years, but nobody wanted me; I wasn’t the corporate type.”

Alan and Joyce had been coming to the Vineyard each year while Cy went to Camp Jabberwocky. Alan had no prospects, and they spent the two summer weeks on the Island camping out because they couldn’t afford to rent a place. The Island was perfect for ruminating about next steps, though.

On his return to Connecticut, he met with a fellow who was selling three newsletters. Alan and Joyce mortgaged the house, paid cash for the newsletters, and became the publishers. “We began to build the back-end computer system that would help to run our company, Simba Information. We grew to 65 employees in five years, and became the dominant information industry spokespeople for online information, book publishing, yellow pages, and directory publishing,” Brigish said. “The company was a shooting star, and it did very well. I got an offer to buy a part of the company two years in, and I accepted the offer. This was the beginning of the dot-com era, 1999 to 2000. But I decided to invest in some dot-com companies first.”
Planning to attend a meeting with one of the companies in California, he booked a flight on Sept. 10, 2001, for the following day — on United Flight 93 out of Newark. Realizing late in the day that he didn’t accrue mileage on that airline, he switched his flight to one on American Airlines from J.F.K. Airport.

“We were on the way when the pilot said that there had been an emergency in New York, and they were grounding all planes. We landed in St. Louis. I was thinking about the world, as I think we all were. On the fourth day, I managed to get a Hertz car. It was a 20-hour drive from St. Louis to New York. I was driving on [route] 78 in the most frightening conditions. Rain was coming down in torrents, with huge trucks thundering by. I decided that if I got out of that alive, I would completely change my life. I drove back to J.F.K. to get my car at two in the morning, and got to Connecticut. And I said to Joyce, ‘I’m done. I made it safe.’ I quit all my boards, wrote off the bad investments, and kept the good ones. And I decided to become a traveling professional photographer.

“In 2000, we’d built a nice house in West Tisbury. So we moved to the Vineyard five years later, and that was part of the process of changing everything.”

Brigish’s subsequent travels have taken him all over the world, including Bhutan. A profound experience during an illness there left him captivated about the country’s philosophy of “gross national happiness” over the importance of the gross national product. He subsequently discovered a Bodhi Path center here on the Vineyard, and he’s been a practicing Buddhist ever since.

During that time, Joyce had been suffering with a series of medical issues. In February 2016, she was diagnosed with mesothelioma, and in eight months she died, despite surgery and a brave fight.

“Here’s a woman that I’d loved dearly for 51 years. I simply became her advocate, and was on the phone with every conceivable specialist, and doing Internet research and doing what I do,” Brigish said. “It was all to no avail. I had tremendous support from Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard and my Buddhist friends. Something the Dalai Lama says is that you spend your whole life preparing yourself for a good death, and that was certainly true.

“We were able to come together as spiritually as it was possible to be, given the great pain she was in. We had created this wonderful life together, and how do you move on from there? The grieving process is not something that one has any control over. Having support is really important.

“I had to run my grief in parallel with getting along with my life. I’m 77 years old, and the clock’s ticking. I’ve got places to go, people to see, things to do. I couldn’t get stuck in the past. I made the decision very soon after Joyce passed that I would begin to get on with my life and start new relationships and new projects. I thought for a while about leaving the Vineyard, and then I thought, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ So I’m here, and I will stay for now.”