John Early, master builder and civic stalwart, dies at 74

Island mourns the loss of a ‘caring’ and ‘decent’ man.

John Early of West Tisbury is being remembered as a caring and decent civic leader. -MVY Radio

John Early, a former West Tisbury selectman and a longtime master builder, died Friday from complications related to Parkinson’s disease, according to his sister, Alice Early. He was 74. John was at the Bridges of Mashpee, a memory care assisted-living facility where he’d been for about a year. His wife Shakti was at his side when he passed, Alice said. 

Alice described her brother as a “wonderful” man who was good-humored and “very ironic always,” and dedicated to his local community. 

“Often didn’t say much — implied more than he said,” she said. “He was kind of a rock for the family, kind of the way he was in the community.”

Alice said of his long résumé of community service, the West Tisbury Fire Department, where he was a deputy chief, was especially dear to him. “That mattered a lot to him,” she said. “It really did.

“He went to radio check every Sunday, long after he was able to serve.” In essence, he was a “very warm, very caring” man, she said. 

West Tisbury Fire Chief Manuel Estrella III said John was deputy chief for over 30 years, and gave half a century of service to the West Tisbury Fire Department. “He’ll be really missed, not just at the fire department but across the whole Island,” he said. 

On behalf of West Tisbury selectmen, chair Cythia Mitchell mourned John’s passing.

“We are deeply saddened by the death of our colleague and friend John Early,” she wrote. “His decades-long service to the town of West Tisbury was marked by his steady, often quiet, yet always strong leadership, and a command of both local and regional politics. John served West Tisbury and the Island community in countless capacities, yet was somehow always there when you needed him. We know we speak for former and current West Tisbury town officials and staff when we say John will always be remembered for the dedication, guidance, and deep love he gave to our community. Our hearts go out to his family. Like them, we will miss him dearly.”

Clarence (“Trip”) Barnes described his passing as “a great loss to the Vineyard, and a loss of a good friend to an awful lot of people.”

“He had a good reputation,” Barnes said, “which is hard to hold up in this day and age.”

“He was a good friend — just a great person,” Richard Olsen said. Olsen’s son put one of John’s old campaign signs out along State Road in West Tisbury recently. “A great tribute to him, I think,” Olsen said.

“The Island lost a treasure,” Lenny Jason said. Jason said John “worked diligently to make the Island a better place for everyone.” Jason recalled serving with him on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. “He replaced me as chairman,” he said. Jason said they also served together “on the first housing authority.”

Jason, who has served Aquinnah, Chilmark, and Edgartown as building inspector, said he’d seen John’s quality homebuilding up close. “John Early’s crew built a lot of class-A, No. 1 houses,” Jason said. Jason said John’s building accomplishments include the Edgartown house bought by the Obama family.

Jason remembered John as “just an all-around good guy.”

Len Butler, who had worked with John since the early 1970s in construction, described him as “honest almost to a fault.” Butler worked for decades with John at John Early Contractor and Builder, Inc. “We had little turnover in our company because of the way John treated his employees,” he said. Butler still works for the company, and said the core crew has remained. Butler said one of John’s hallmarks was finishing work properly whatever it took, never cutting corners.

“You can put the money in your pocket,” Butler recalled John saying, “or you can put it in the finish.” Butler said John always put it in the finish, or finished product.

“John would take extra time to do things well and do things right, and oftentimes not charge the customer,” he said. “He just gave and gave and gave.”

In 2014, Early was honored with the Spirit of the Vineyard Award from Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard. “Intertwined with what you do is who you are. In recognizing John Early’s remarkable array of contributions to our community’s life, extending for more than 40 years — selectman, volunteer fireman and EMT, board member — this year’s 17th Spirit of the Vineyard Award, given by Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard, celebrates John’s service, but also character,” The Times wrote in an editorial about Early’s award. “John’s public contributions have always shown a bias toward getting things done — housing units developed, trails built, land conserved — but never at the expense of careful and thoughtful listening. He has also been a first responder for 40 years. Watching John discreetly take a call while out to dinner with friends and then slip quietly away to rush to an automobile accident or a fire, knowing the suffering he would have to mediate on behalf of families and friends, was a lesson in community service at its most human and fundamental.”

The editorial also noted Early’s inability to say no. “While appropriately self-deprecating,

it’s not that John is a pushover; it just isn’t in his nature to turn aside a chance to be useful.”

In presenting the award to Early in 2014, Ron Rappaport ticked off a long list of Early’s accomplishments, which included his public service, but also recognized him as one of the founders of Vineyard House and president of Island Elderly Housing. “John Early’s tenure as a selectman was marked by decency, common sense, and respect for his fellow citizens,” Rappaport said.