Two stalwarts of the Edgartown District Court have retired. Gayle Stiller served in the court for 42 years, while Jean Wunsch served there for 32 years. They both retired July 31. Stiller is a Vineyard native, and part of the Cronig family. She lives on the Oak Bluffs–Vineyard Haven line. Wunsch hails from Connecticut, but has lived in Vineyard Haven for years.
Stiller, who officially started in 1978 under clerk-magistrate Thomas Teller, said the district court was county-run back then. It wasn’t until about four years later that the commonwealth took over the court. “People were still coming off the street wanting to see the courtroom where Teddy Kennedy was, and I think in the early days they walked off with a lot of little souvenirs — that’s what I’ve heard.”
She started on typewriters, which gave way to computer terminals, she said. “I came in after they had stopped doing pen and ink in the books. We still have those books on the shelf. You know, they go back quite a ways.”
After so much legal experience, Stiller said she did not feel the urge to aim for a law practice or judge’s robes, but rather “loved” to work with lawyers, judges, and the public.
“I felt I was more useful doing what I was doing,” she said. Stiller said she enjoyed helping people feel more comfortable in what she described as often an intimidating environment. She said she also enjoyed boiling material down so it could be universally understood.
Stiller said she didn’t “always see eye to eye” with Teller, but nevertheless described him as often being “generous, warm, and caring.” Back then, she said, “it was no secret” that an “old boys network” governed things. Not so under clerk-magistrate Liza Williamson, who she said was a pleasure to work with, and went out of her way to explain complex subject matter.
“It’s just a different atmosphere,” she said. One thing that Stiller noted that Williamson did “early on” was change who could access the office.
“Our office used to be like an open door, anybody, cops, attorneys, anybody who wanted to come and sit around there, they could. And I didn’t always appreciate that. For one thing, they got in the way. It just never really felt comfortable.”
Williamson put the kibosh on the open door policy, she said.
Wunsch saw changes in the court too. “When I first started, we were using typewriters, yes typewriters, with ribbons,” she wrote The Times. “Fortunately for me, they had the erase function. And cassette tapes to record court proceedings. I would have to ask the judge to pause court testimony so that I could put in a new tape. What an advancement when we were given a double-cassette recorder that would switch over to the next tape automatically!”
Wunsch said while the equipment changed, the steadfastness of those she worked with didn’t.
“Every police officer and staff from every department has been helpful and kind,” she wrote. She also praised the sheriff’s department for their work.
“The people you work with make all the difference.” Some folks she highlighted were Dukes County manager Martina Thornton, the probation staff, and longtime local bar association president Skip Tomassian.
She wrote she was indebted to many lawyers for their help, especially back when she was a “newbie,” and thanked Judges Rowe, Williams, Garth, Julian, and Barnes, among others, for imparting their knowledge. She gave a special thanks to former Dukes County Superior Court Clerk Joe Sollitto for pinch-hitting in the district court on occasion, and for being a “wise counsel” and a “civil guru.”
She described Williamson as “my other daughter,” and said she was “truly a blessing” whom she will miss.
Stiller retired as a case coordinator. Among other things, she said, she will enjoy sleeping in a bit during her retirement. She said she’s yet to collect her belongings from her desk, and choked up reflecting on the friends she was leaving behind in the courthouse.
Wunsch retired as head administrative assistant and preferred to keep her retirement plans under seal. “I’m sure my dear friend Gayle and I are looking forward to our next chapters,” she said.