Doug West began coming to Martha’s Vineyard in summers as a kid, back in 1952, and later his family bought a cottage in Oak Bluffs. When he met Irene Ziebarth in California, she had never been to the Island, but she quickly became a summer convert. When they both retired in 2006, they began to spend more and more time on the Vineyard, eventually made it their year-round home, and embarked on public service, love-of-the-Island, volunteer careers. A simple Second Act story, right? Like so many we’ve heard before, right? No, not simple, and not one we’ve heard before.
Doug grew up in Michigan and went to Michigan State University. Irene laughs, “He said it was not a distinguished academic career; he was, in his words, ‘distracted.’ He had a radio show, played cornet in the marching band, and had a good time.” From there he went into the Peace Corps in Jamaica, then, as a more serious student, to law school, and like a good Detroiter, a job in the car business, in the legal department at Ford. Meanwhile, Irene, also a lawyer, was doing business litigation work in Los Angeles. Doug moved on to Toyota on the West Coast, where he was eventually made vice president, in charge of product liability cases. That’s where they met. Irene says they both loved their jobs: “I don’t think we ever woke up and didn’t want to go to work.”
Beginning in 1986, Doug and Irene spent a part of each summer on the Vineyard, in Doug’s family’s cottage in the Campground. It was quite a contrast from the wide-open spaces to the smog, chain stores, and endless freeways of Southern California. But Irene, who had moved 13 times as a kid, and was adept at adapting, fell in love with the Island. Then back to Newport Beach, Calif., for the rest of each year, until Doug became head of Toyota’s Washington, D.C., office. In Irene’s career, “most of my trials (real estate developers and owners) went to arbitration at JAMS, Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Service. I was persuaded to join JAMS as an arbitrator, and transferred to their Washington office.” They did get to spend eight months in Japan when Doug had a Toyota assignment, then back to D.C. until retirement in 2006. Irene says, “We thought maybe we should downsize in California and upsize on the Vineyard as our retirement home. So I did a study of what we wanted in retirement, read books and magazines, researched, and made a list and compared the Vineyard and Newport Beach. Only three things we wanted existed on the Vineyard, but all 15 existed in our condominium in Newport Beach. The Vineyard lost, but it got us every summer, sometimes for as long as 20 weeks …” At least, that was the plan.
But as boxer Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” In 2012, Doug and Irene got punched. They were told Doug had pancreatic cancer, and had no more than four months to live. He was not likely to see Christmas; if he did, he wouldn’t see Easter. Irene says, “It changed our lives. It changed how we saw everything.” They spent the next two weeks doing “only what we wanted to do, going where we wanted to go, with people we wanted to be with.”
Then things turned upside down again, this time in a good way. They visited the oncologist, who explained that Doug had a rare form of pancreatic cancer that could not be cured, but, with monthly injections, the tumors could be “frozen in place,” so they would not be fatal. The four-month death sentence had been lifted. Each time they left the doctor’s office, he’d tell Doug, “Be careful crossing the street, because you’ve got a greater chance of being killed by a car than by the cancer.” The perspective of doing only what they wanted to do stuck with them, and became a guiding principle.
They had two priorities: Move to a one-floor home. And live reasonably close to a doctor to administer Doug’s treatment. The latter turned out to be easier than the former. There were three experts in this type of treatment: one in LA, one in Kentucky, and one in Boston. With Kentucky off the table, they figured they could get to LA — through notorious West Coast traffic — or Boston — via ferry and car — in about the same amount of time. They began looking for a one-story home in both places. With nothing to their liking in Newport Beach, they decided if they found the right place on the Vineyard, they’d move there full-time.
The Vineyard had long since captured their hearts. They were part of the Summer Institute Speakers Series; members of the M.V. Film Society; Doug was a regular at the Wednesday morning men’s discussion groups — he spoke on Japanese art and twice on electric vehicles. Irene was part of the women’s group, not to mention their shared love of “the pure beauty of Martha’s Vineyard. Here there are more trees than people, but in Newport Beach, there are more people than trees. And everything has been transplanted, every green thing is watered by an irrigation system; it’s all fake, from someplace else. On the Vineyard, it’s all real.” And the Island environment isn’t just physical, “living here, we found how nice the people are, what a welcoming environment.” But to find the right home, once again, Irene took over the research and analytics. “Doug didn’t want a dirt road or a swimming pool. After a month of looking, he said, ‘OK, we can look on a dirt road.’ Still we couldn’t find anything. After three months, I made a list of the rejects — I’m data-driven — the ones that we’d seen that didn’t work, and some we hadn’t looked at. The first one we went back to, one we had not looked at, was on a dirt road in Chilmark, and had a pool. We instantly loved it. That was 2017, and that’s where I am now.”
From then on, Doug and Irene, already involved in Vineyard life, threw themselves in further. Doug, who had been a supporter of the Martha’’s Vineyard Museum’s move to Vineyard Haven, met Phil Wallis and became a volunteer guide. Phil led him to the Vineyard Conservation Society, where they say one-third of the Island is developed; one-third is under conservation; and they want to save the other third. Doug chaired a committee called Save What’s Left. Irene says this was nothing new. “Back when Doug was in the Peace Corps in Jamaica, he held presentation meetings to the fishermen on the island to show them that if they had freezers, they could sell their fish when prices were at their highest. At 22, he was the same guy he was his whole life, holding meetings to help people.”
Meanwhile, Irene had taken a job as a proofreader at The MV Times — she says she’s much more accurate than software programs — and she proofs documents for various Island towns. She says, “Doug loved volunteer work, and I like getting paid … even just a little.” But she also does pro bono work. She serves on the human resources board of Chilmark, is the archivist for the League of Women Voters and the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club, and she’s on the Airport Commission Public Relations Community Outreach subcommittee (a personal passion as a longtime private pilot; she flew a “single-engine tail-dragger.”)
So, with all their good efforts for the Vineyard, did they ever work together? “No, Doug wanted me to be the best person I could be, however I defined it.” They even differed in their daily activities. Irene would play golf or go for a hike. Doug would prefer a meeting. But both on the Vineyard, each in their own way.
That’s their story — Doug West and Irene Ziebarth — a Vineyard love story. But as readers may have noted, the quotes are from Irene, not Doug. In late December 2022, Doug lost his health battle — not to the original cancer, but to a combination of ailments he could no longer stave off. When the end became inevitable, Irene says, “I called a family meeting (just the two of us, our family), and Doug asked, ‘What’s the subject?’ I said, ‘Where we want to die.’ He wanted to die here. But he thought I’d want to return to California. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Right here.’” Today, almost a year later, Irene says, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m not looking back. There’s an Irish expression, Be in the place where you are. This is where I am.”
Doug and Irene had their second acts here. They almost didn’t. But they did. The Vineyard didn’t win on paper. It won in their hearts. As Irene says, “This is where I am.” And so is Doug.
Jim Dale is a nonfiction writer who has coauthored books on topics ranging from sports to business, to medicine, to politics, most recently the memoir “We’re Better than This,” with Congressman Elijah Cummings.