Ward Just, an acclaimed novelist who lived in Vineyard Haven, died on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Plymouth. He was 84, and suffered from Lewy body dementia.
Just grew up in Illinois, just outside Chicago, and worked for the Waukegan Sun, a family newspaper run by his father. He went on to work at Newsweek, and then to cover the Vietnam War for Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post, before leaving journalism to write fiction.
Just would eventually write 19 novels, becoming a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “An Unfinished Season” (2004), about an aspiring journalist in 1950s Chicago. He moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1977, and lived here seasonally until 1992, when he and his wife, Sarah Catchpole, became year-round residents.
In an interview in Martha’s Vineyard Arts and Ideas magazine in 2014, Jack Shea described Just:
“Ward Just shows up as a good and likable man. Authentic, centered, without the studied panache common to writers with big publishing chops and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. His Midwestern roots didn’t make him a good man; that seems to have come from long dedication to being honest with himself.
“But the Midwest invests its children with a specific set of values, and a sense of place that Just suspects has stayed with him throughout a very big life on the world stage — far from the family daily newspaper business in Waukegan, Ill., 40 miles up the road from Chicago.
“He writes directly, in an intelligent, unhurried, graceful style. His body of work includes 18 novels, two nonfiction books, and several collections of short stories. They are literary books, written in his voice, with a just-evident tang of Henry James and Ernest Hemingway, his stylistic heroes.
“Just, 78, is clear on his beliefs and about his enjoyments, which include Camel-straight cigarettes and a particular red wine from the Cahors region of France. (‘Chummy. It doesn’t cost too much, and treats you right the next morning.’) Likely, he is wise as a result of dedication to a pursuit of knowledge, a search that has graced him with humility. He has put himself in harm’s way on several continents in his pursuit of knowledge of the world and of himself.”
Of his years as a journalist and his career as a novelist, Just told Shea, “I always wanted to write fiction. Before I was a teenager, I fancied myself a storyteller. A later thought was that I didn’t know enough about how the world worked to write about it. I couldn’t learn it from books, it had to be an observed thing for me. That was one reason I went into newspapering right away. I had to find a voice that satisfied me so I could tell a story.”
West Tisbury author and former war correspondent Geraldine Brooks wrote in an email to The Times that Just “was an inspiration to me as a newspaperman, a fearless foreign correspondent, a prolific and talented novelist, and as a friend.
“He was witty and modest about his gifts,” Brooks went on. “Accepting an award, he thanked independent booksellers for their passionate support of his literary novels throughout the years. ‘No one gets rich selling Ward Just,’ he told them, ‘including Ward Just.’
“He is a loss to the Vineyard and to the world of literature.”
Ann Nelson, the former owner of Bunch of Grapes Bookstore shared her appreciation of Just via email. “Ward Just was, to me, one of the great writers who graced the shelves of the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore. His writings were so diversified and beautifully written, they transported you into his pages … Customers and guests in my home would ask me for a recommendation for reading, and I would always have a Ward Just book among my recommended books. Without fail, the reader or guest would ask for another book written by Ward. To me, Ward’s words on his typewriter have been cut short. There is no doubt in my mind that in today’s political climate, having such a rich field to work with, he would have written another great novel. The world has lost a star among writers. I shall not only miss his writings, I will miss a good friend.”
“Ward Just embodied for me the seriousness of the writer’s life, as one that necessitated daily reading as well as writing,” novelist and former Vassar professor Frank Bergon wrote in an email. “I never heard him talk about getting fame or attention, but only of getting the work done, day in and day out, as he did, surely one of the last in his generation of writers to peck away on a manual typewriter, even with a hand still affected from his being blasted by some 19 pieces of grenade shrapnel in Vietnam, a story he enriched with his memorable throaty laughs that allowed him not to take himself seriously while underscoring the full human seriousness of his story. That’s how he talked and wrote.”
Beyond his literary accomplishments, Just was “a generous and supportive friend,” according to MVTimes publisher Peter Oberfest, a friend of Just’s. “He was a wonderful storyteller, a great dinner companion, and an optimist in the face of all he had seen.”
Island attorney Ron Rappaport said in an email to The Times, “Ward Just was a wonderful man. A true gentleman and a great raconteur. It was a great privilege to be his friend.”
“We were great pals for many years,” painter Kib Bramhall wrote, “and every day of our friendship was a gift.”
Just’s wife, Sarah Catchpole, wrote to The Times about her husband’s love of Martha’s Vineyard: “Ward loved the Vineyard, loved Lambert’s Cove beach, particularly at sundown when he could throw a plug in the water from shore, casting about for the elusive bluefish, over and over and over, the pleasure and the beauty of the act more important than landing a fish. He loved chewing over meaty ideas around a dinner table, as curious about tugboating as he was about American politics or the current take on the latest Philip Roth novel. He loved Mink Meadows, the People’s Course he called it. And he hated what he called the tyranny of the ferries, being bound to a schedule.
“But don’t we all?”
Ward Just is survived by his wife, Sarah Catchpole, three children — Jennifer Just of Woodbridge, Conn., Julia Just of Brooklyn, and a son, Ian Just of Arlington — and six grandchildren.
His graveside service will be held on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020 in the Lamberts Cove Cemetery, Lamberts Cove Road in West Tisbury at 2:00pm.
Donations in his memory may be made to Senior Behavioral Health Center (at Beth Israel-Deaconess Hospital, Plymouth) Attn: Eva Masiello; 275 Sandwich Street, Plymouth, MA 02360.
Arrangements are under the care of the Chapman, Cole and Gleason Funeral Home, Oak Bluffs. Please visit www.ccgfuneralhome.com for online guest book and information.