Updated March 20
The Island has lost one of its leaders. John Alley, 78, a member of the Dukes County Commissioners, died Wednesday night.
“I just got some very sad news, my Uncle John passed away in the early morning hours at home,” Linda Alley wrote on Facebook. “He had been released from [Massachusetts General Hospital] earlier that day. I am overwhelmed with emotion right now.”
Alley also served on the Vineyard Transit Authority board. He is survived by his wife, Anna, and their children, Nicole and Sam.
On Thursday morning, Paddy Moore’s sister went to the West Tisbury Post Office, which is inside Alley’s General Store. It was there that Anna, who was sorting the morning mail, told her the news about her husband.
“I’ve talked this morning with Sam, who fortunately was home last night, and they are all pulling together,” Moore, chair of Healthy Aging M.V., wrote in an email. “John would appreciate Anna’s stalwartness — if that is a word. A family tradition.”
The West Tisbury board of selectmen issued a statement about Alley: “The board of selectmen sadly note that John Alley has passed away. An island institution, John has been an integral part of this community for too many years to count. The town will not be the same without him. We send our thoughts and sympathy to the family at this difficult time.”
In a broadcast on MVTV about the ongoing coronavirus crisis, Melinda Loberg, a Tisbury selectman, called Alley “an Island character and institution.”
The current situation is delaying the family’s plans to memorialize Alley, who would surely draw a crowd.
Martina Thornton, in a statement, wrote, “John Alley was an Island institution; public service was his way of life. He was by far the longest serving Dukes County Commissioner — we are talking decades here. His institutional knowledge and experience cannot be replaced. He was a caring man, and his decisions were reflecting his dedication to the Island and its residents. He will be dearly missed.”
In 2015, John and Anna had been married for 33 years, and did an interview with The Times about their relationship. They were asked to describe their time together: “We have had an exciting and interesting life together. John was busy with local politics on many levels, which was frequently interesting. He also knew everyone and his brother, parents, and grandparents, which was also very interesting. Anna was busy with children, a lot of work on many nonprofit organizations, and then working part-time, first in the schools as a substitute school nurse, then at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital working per diem as a nurse on the acute floor, and now at Vineyard Pediatrics. Anna also was elected to the Parks and Recreation Committee, and then to the School Committee. One might say we are interested in people and all that affects them. Our children are our most important work and interest.”
They had this advice for couples: “Much of life seems like the luck of the draw, but if a couple first and foremost love each other and want to be together, and are committed to make the marriage work, then hopefully it will.”
And John Alley knew weddings.
Alley was known for being a justice of the peace, and when Geoff Currier sat down to interview him in 2018, he had officiated at more than 2,500 weddings in his signature top hat and tails.
Currier described Alley’s West Tisbury home this way: “I feel like I’m in a Norman Rockwell painting — either that or in a Pepperidge Farm commercial. An old Regulator clock ticks away on the wall, John’s top hat sits on the table, and John, with his distinctive Down East accent, sits back in his chair and tells the story about how he became a justice of the peace.”
His first wedding was that of his friend and neighbor Allen Whiting, who wanted to get married in his State Road home in West Tisbury. At the time, the JP in Edgartown didn’t want to travel to West Tisbury. His friend gave him an idea. “Whiting said, ‘Well, why don’t you get your JP license and you could marry us?’” Alley recalled in that interview.
Alley told The Times that’s where the top hat and tails got its start. “Allen asked me if I would wear the hat that I wore to his father Everett’s wedding. Before Everett’s wedding I had gone up to Boston and bought an opera hat for five bucks, and I borrowed a cane and a tux jacket — for some reason I thought I’d go to the wedding as Fred Astaire. That was the hat Allen wanted me to wear, and I obliged.”
Alley was a JP at a time when the Vineyard became a booming wedding destination. He performed as many as 25 to 35 ceremonies a year. He’d been doing it so long that he’d actually performed the ceremony for the children of couples he married 20 years earlier.