Second Acts: Leigh Cormie

Some people find their second act on a fateful ferry ride.

Leigh Cormie found his second act on Martha's Vineyard, and now serves as terminal manager for the Steamship Authority in Vineyard Haven. — Leigh Cormie

It seems Leigh Cormie was destined to end up on Martha’s Vineyard. He certainly didn’t plan it. If his itinerary from Czechoslovakia, where he’d been working in a brewery, back home to Australia, hadn’t taken him via London and then Boston, he wouldn’t be here at all. He wouldn’t have been introduced to Bernadette, his future wife, who wouldn’t have taken him sailing, or to spend a few days with her friends on the Vineyard. He wouldn’t have fallen in love with Berni … and the Island. They wouldn’t have married and had children here. He wouldn’t have wandered down to the Vineyard Haven ferry office one day to ask about open positions. And he wouldn’t have ultimately gone from future brewmaster to terminal manager for the Steamship Authority. But he did. That’s how Leigh Cormie discovered his second act on Martha’s Vineyard. All because of his itinerary — or fate.

“I’d finished my brewing studies at Ballarat [Australia], was then working at this brewery in Prague, and I was going back home to Sydney,” Leigh says. But on the stopover in Boston, Leigh met his future wife, Bernadette, through sailing. “We met through friends. She taught blind people to sail [through the Carroll Center for the Blind]. It was fascinating — wonderful — watching blind people sail.” So Leigh didn’t go straight home: “I ended up staying here a bit longer because, you know, Berni and I, we did more sailing together,” Leigh says. One weekend Berni said she had a friend on the Vineyard, and suggested the two go there. Leigh was introduced to people who hoped to open a microbrewery there, “which never came to fruition,” but what did was falling in love with Berni and staying the whole summer on the Vineyard. That led to Leigh extending his visa and getting engaged (or vice versa), and that led to finding work, which led to the Island Inn, “doing, well, whatever needed doing,” Leigh says. Meanwhile Berni, who had graduated in finance, was covering 24 states for Motorola and commuting back and forth on weekends. 

One day after grocery shopping at Stop & Shop, Leigh walked down to the Steamship Authority, asked about work, and met Bridget Tobin, the terminal manager. “She told me to come back on Monday. She hired me on the spot, and I’ve been there ever since,” Leigh says. His first job there was, as he says, the job everyone starts with — janitor. Later, he moved outside as a dockworker, and through the ranks. 

The decision to stay on the Vineyard had come long before. “We got married, and my son was born on Martha’s Vineyard, and I said to myself, I have a position, let’s raise the children here. There was only one son, and then along came the second one,” Leigh says. When an agent’s position at the SSA, that is, a management job, came open, Leigh applied and got it. Eventually Leigh rose to terminal manager, the title Bridget held when she hired him all those years ago. “It’s a 24/7, 365 job. You can be called in at any time. For a weather problem, a mechanical problem, a boat problem, anything,” he explains. “There are rewarding moments and not-so-rewarding moments. Maybe a boat breaks down, and people don’t get on their reservation. And there’s a process for standby. It’s actually the fairest way to do it. I try to explain it, but not everybody is happy.” Then Leigh’s voice changes, grows softer, “On the other side, I deal with a lot of cancer patients, we all do at the terminal, cancer patients that go off-Island” for chemo and radiation treatments in Boston, Cape Cod, Hyannis, or Falmouth. “I just want to get them up there — it’s a real team effort by everyone at SSA to get them treated and then return them back. Adults and kids, little kids.” Yes, there are rewarding moments.

Maybe Leigh was made for this work. Maybe there’s a connection between beer and ferries. “I guess I’m a people person. That probably comes from doing brewing as well. You make beer to put a smile on people’s faces,” Leigh says. And you try to keep a smile on passenger’s faces. Or get them to their medical treatment. “That’s what I try to do every day,” Leigh adds. After a chance walk down from Stop & Shop, it’s been 24 years at the SSA.

“We’ve met some wonderful people here over the years … become close with a lot of them. They in turn have raised families here, and the children intermingle with those children, and then they go to school,” Leigh explains. Leigh and Berni sent their two boys to Island schools and then on to off-Island and boarding schools. The combination seems to have been ideal. Their oldest is a rower who was recruited to and attended University of Pennsylvania, and then went on to a private equity career in New York. The younger boy is a sailor, selected for the Olympic development program, who will also likely be recruited by Division I schools: “You’re just there to guide them through life in these wonderful surroundings. I would say it’s a wonderful place.” 

That’s where Leigh Cormie found his “other self,” and so did his wife, Berni. She went from her business and finance career off-Island to a finance and grantwriting career on-Island. And since she had to feed a growing family, she created a catering business as well, where she sources most of her fresh foods from Island farms. Two second acts in the same family. All because of an itinerary from Prague to Sydney by way of Boston, and perhaps fatefully, a ferry ride to an Island called Martha’s Vineyard.