West Tisbury resident Clayton Albert Friis passed away on July 7, 2021, at the age of 95. Many islanders knew Clayton from his years as captain of the Menemsha Bike Ferry. He also worked on the Chappaquiddick Ferry and Vineyard Haven Harbor tender.
The son of Scandinavian immigrants, Clayton grew up in Brockton during the Depression. He enlisted in the Navy in 1944, and was sent to Alma College to train as an officer, where he received the gift of a college education. He served as ensign first class in the North Atlantic aboard the aircraft carrier USS Leyte.
With the aid of the GI Bill, he fulfilled his and his parents’ dream of higher education, and received an M.A. in psychology from Tufts University, an M.A. in philosophy from New York University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in education from Boston University.
Witnessing the inequalities and injustices visited on the working class and immigrant community of his childhood inspired him to dedicate his life to public education. After the war, he served as a director of Duxbury Stockade and Camp Lapham, summer camps for underserved children from the Boston metro areas. He taught in elementary schools in the Weston and Newton school districts, then served as high school principal in Sheffield and Williamstown. He went on to be assistant superintendent of the Harrison and New Rochelle public school districts in the New York metro area. At the latter, he was a part of the first successful efforts to fully desegregate a Northern urban school district. He was deeply dedicated to civil and human rights, and lived his values in his work and global friendships. He served as the superintendent of the East Williston School district on Long Island, named the best school district in the U.S. during his tenure, and was the superintendent of the Nyack, N.Y., school district, from which he retired.
Although he had great professional success, he was ever the “salt of the earth,” rugged kid from Brockton. His first job was in fifth grade, when his classmates paid him to protect them from bullies on the way to school. In 1969, he famously ran into New Rochelle High School while it was on fire and rescued the student records before the building collapsed. His heroic effort made it possible for the school’s 3,000-plus students to continue their education in community spaces throughout the city while a new high school was built.
A Renaissance man, Clayton was an avid violinist and violist. Joined by his wife of 65 years, cellist Lynn Jelliffe Friis, who predeceased him, he played in orchestras and string quartets throughout his life. Together they sang with the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston and treasured lifelong friendships with chamber musicians in New York and on the Vineyard. He told stories of walking 25 miles from Brockton to Boston with his father to see the Boston Symphony. He always memorized his seat number in case he lost his ticket on the way. In his later years, he was a member of the Vineyard Sinfonietta.
After his retirement from educational leadership, he filled his life with epic adventures and world travels. These included multiple transatlantic voyages on his Tahiti Ketch, the Eliza III. It sunk in a hurricane in 1991, during which he was rescued by a Polish freighter 800 miles off Bermuda. He established a yacht delivery business, and sailed out of Vineyard Haven harbor to the Caribbean, the Azores, the Faroe Islands, Norway, Chile, and Brazil. In the winter, backpack in tow, he explored Mexico, Europe, and China, and lived in Mexico for many winters, establishing lifelong friendships there. His adventurer’s soul never ebbed, and when he could no longer travel, he regaled anyone and everyone who would listen with his stories.
He spoke Spanish and German, wrote and published poetry, loved young people and children, was the last person to leave any dance floor, and had a song for any and every occasion. He had an incredible warmth, and jolly, irreverent sense of humor that made him beloved by his grandchildren and nieces and nephews. He was the life of every party.
He was predeceased by his beloved wife, Lynn Jelliffe, and is survived by his children, Suzanne Friis Gagliardi (Ron) of Holmdel, N.J., Carl Friis of Vail, Colo., Rachel Friis Stettler (David) of Portland, Maine, and Tanya Friis (Michael) of Pahrump, Nev.; by four grandchildren; and by a great-grandson.
Please visit chapmanfuneral.com for online tribute page and information.