Will Holtham, “Willy D” to friends, the former owner of the Home Port restaurant in Menemsha, died of a heart attack on Sept. 10, leaving behind him a long list of accomplishments and legions of friends both on and off the Island.
Holtham grew up in Granby, Conn., a scrappy little town in the northern part of the state where he often spent his days hunting and fishing and in close contact with nature. Mike Lynch of West Tisbury, who was also from Granby and knew Holtham since the third grade, talks about what it was like to grow up there. “People used to pay us to shoot woodchucks,” Lynch said. “We’d drive around on our bikes carrying rifles. It was very rural.”
Holtham’s son Mike, the general manager of the Net Result in Vineyard Haven, said that growing up, his dad was no stranger to hard work. Will’s father had MS, and was in a wheelchair all his life, and Will spent much of his time caretaking his dad; then he would get up early in the morning and milk cows at a nearby farm.
Mike said that Will’s mother told him that growing up, Will was “quite a handful.” In high school, Holtham was sent off to Carson Long Military Academy in Pennsylvania, where he made a friendship that would change the arc of his life. His friend was Chuck Cummens, the son of Chet Cummens, the owner of the Home Port restaurant in Menemsha. In the summer of 1967, Holtham was hired to mop floors and wash dishes at the Home Port, and he not only took to the restaurant business, he fell in love with the freewheeling Vineyard of the ’60s.
After high school, Holtham attended Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, where he studied engineering, and continued working summers at the Home Port. But just a few credits shy of graduating, Holtham had a change of plans, and decided he wanted to get into the restaurant business instead. He spent a year bumming around the country before he came back to Boston and took a job as an assistant manager at Valle’s Steak House. Then in the late ’70s he took a job at Anthony’s Pier 4 in Boston. Anthony Athanas, owner of Pier 4, took a shine to Holtham, and sent him down to the Cape to open up his new restaurant at the Cummaquid Inn in Yarmouth Port.
What followed was the opportunity of a lifetime. Chet Cummens of the Home Port had developed diabetes, and decided he wanted to sell the restaurant — and he knew just whom he wanted to sell it to, the kid he had groomed in the business who loved the Home Port nearly as much as he did: Will Holtham.
The only problem was that Holtham had very little money, but to make a long story short, Holtham’s high school friend Kenny Kidd and Dave Flanders of Chilmark helped Holtham cobble together a deal with the M.V. Bank, and Holtham walked away with the restaurant of his dreams.
In 1977, when Holtham took over the Home Port, he was married to Susan Rutter, and they had a baby daughter, Jessica. Jessica said that when they first took over the restaurant, the whole family lived upstairs. After Susan and Will were divorced, Holtham and his second wife, Janice MacDougall, had twins, Mike and Megan. Over the years, at one time or another all three kids would be enlisted to work at the Home Port, and Megan described what it was like to work and live over a restaurant.
“As much as the Home Port was a restaurant,” Megan wrote in an email, “it was also our home … It was where so many of our childhood memories were made. It wasn’t weird to me that the staircase in the middle of the busy restaurant kitchen led up to where we lived. It wasn’t weird to me that sitting down for breakfast entailed unstacking and uncovering a table in the dining room, surrounded by 100-plus other tables, chairs, and 50 or so taxidermied fish and other sea creatures. Going to bed at night, we were lulled to sleep by the residual sound of hundreds of diners and the clanking of dishes being washed … eventually the sound would die down and we’d be left with the sounds of Menemsha Harbor and the distant channel buoy.”
Mike Lynch came out to work at the Home Port with Will under Chet Cummens, and lives on the Island to this day, where he works as a contractor.
“When they were living above the Home Port,” Lynch said, “it was barely winterized. It was a pretty spartan lifestyle. Sometimes they’d have to go to other people’s homes.” But over time the business began to prosper.
“When I was working there in the ’60s,” Lynch said, “on a good day they might serve 150 people combined for lunch and dinner. Toward the end they were serving 700 people just for dinner. Holtham was a machine at that point.”
One of the keys to the Home Port’s success was Holtham’s drive to constantly improve the property. “He was always building,” Lynch said. “He put on two or three additions, and winterized upstairs.” He also added the back door for takeout and a patio for al fresco dining; they turned into big revenue generators.
But equally important to the Home Port’s success was the culture Holtham instilled in the staff. “He did so much to gentrify kids,” Lynch said. ”He’d pass along his great work ethic to the staff — teach them how to talk to adults. Many of the kids went on to have very successful careers. He’d work the staff hard, he paid very well, and they had a lot of fun.”
Holtham’s daughter Megan said that he had a knack for creating chemistry in the kitchen: “People who worked at the Home Port became lifelong friends.” When she got married in 2016, there were 14 couples at the wedding who had met at the Home Port.
A part of the glue that held the staff together was Holtham’s constant pranking. “If someone left a drink out, Dad would salt it,” Megan said, “or he’d put a fake rat in the back room; he was a perpetual prankster.”
“Will couldn’t drive through Boston without stopping at Jack’s Joke Shop,” Mike Lynch said. “He loved dumb tricks like putting a $100 bill on a piece of fishing line, and when someone would try to pick it up, he’d yank it away.”
It wasn’t just the staff that Holtham would ingratiate himself with; he was a fixture in the community as well. “He was very generous with people on the Island,” Mike Holtham said, “Every year before we opened he’d have all the fire chiefs on the Island and the entire Chilmark fire department in for a big, free dinner.”
It’s hard to talk about the Home Port without mention of the many celebrities who flocked to the restaurant. In the “Home Port Cookbook,” written by Will Holtham with A.D. Minnick, Holtham talks about his many loyal celebrity customers who came to the restaurant over the years. He talks about James Cagney (“he never had fish”), John Belushi (“naturally he got into a food fight”), Paul Newman (he met him while he was scrubbing out a trashcan), and Walter Cronkite (“the only person I ever saved a parking spot for”).
In the ’80s Holtham felt the need to spread his wings, and he opened a little clam shack in Menemsha called the Bite, which he eventually sold to his longtime employee Karen Flynn. And then he bought Square Rigger in Edgartown, which gave him a chance to open a year-round restaurant and flex some additional culinary muscles.
He would eventually sell the Square Rigger, but said this about it in his cookbook: “The Home Port was my loving and devoted wife, and the Square Rigger was my young and beautiful mistress. I knew where my place was — at the Home Port.”
In 2009, at the age of 60, Holtham decided to hang up his apron, and he sold the Home Port to Bob and Sarah Nixon, owners of the Beach Plum Inn in Menemsha. Will and his third wife, Madeline, decided to split their time between the Vineyard and their home in Kingsfield, Maine.
“Maine always had my dad’s heart,” Mike said. Kingfield is just 15 minutes from Sugarloaf, and Holtham used it as a base of operations for his passion for hunting, fishing, golf, skiing, and snowmobiling.
“He was crazy about snowmobiling,” Mike Lynch said. “He and his friends would take trips all the way up to Canada and back. But he recently had to stop; it was getting too dangerous.” Then, to keep from getting bored, he began cooking for the Elks, and working on projects to gentrify their neighborhood in Kingsfield.
“Everything he did was pedal to the floor,” Mike Holtham said. “It was a great way to be, but everyone knew he wasn’t nursing home material, this was how he was going to go …” But no one was expecting him to go so soon — he would have turned 72 in January.
Will left behind his wife of 28 years, Madeline Holtham, his three children, and four grandchildren.
“He was the light of my life,” Madeline said, “and he’ll be missed, and what I wouldn’t give to see him one more time.” And that’s a sentiment undoubtedly shared by countless others.