Personalized license plates proclaim our affection for Martha’s Vineyard, on roadways near and far.

Kate Feiffer

You’re driving to Menemsha. The blue Camry in front of you has an Ohio license plate that reads VINYRDR. The beach parking lot is almost full. While looking for an empty space, you notice a snappy convertible from Massachusetts with a CHILMK plate parked next to a red SUV from Connecticut sporting an OTBNMV plate. On your way home, you find yourself driving behind a red Jeep. Something catches your eye. It’s the letters FLYMVY. Your own license plate, a random sampling of letters and numbers, suddenly seems woefully deficient.

If you’ve spent time here, you’ve seen them too. Spotting cars with Vineyard-inspired license plates has become as much a part of the overall Vineyard experience as seeing a T-shirt emblazoned with a black dog or a certain Menemsha bluefish. Yet among some locals, Vineyardy license plates don’t generate a lot of respect. “Who would get one of those?” scoffed a friend of mine. “No one that lives here,” commented her husband.

I’m refraining from naming names in order to protect them from any embarrassment, because it turns out that the people who get these plates are people like Bill O’Leary, whose ties to the Vineyard go so far back that he graduated from the Tisbury High School. (For the record, Tisbury hasn’t had a high school since 1959.) Now living in South Carolina, Bill’s license plate reads MVISLND. In an e-mail, he wrote, “My license plate is intended to keep me closer to my roots.” He added that many of his friends also pay tribute on their license plates to the Island where they grew up.

To find out more about who are behind the wheels of all these cars with Vineyard-themed personalized, or vanity, plates, I started leaving notes on cars last summer. The Vineyard Gazette ran a large ad. Calls came flooding in. I was, I admit, overwhelmed, and due to space limitations in this magazine and organizational limitations of my own, we could only profile a small number of the people who responded. This is unfortunate, primarily because I was having such a great time with my new Vineyard vanity-plate friends.

I met people unsuspectingly brought together by their appreciation, even reverence, for this Island. They are clever, convivial, and extremely nice. Their license plates can be as cryptic as a love poem. Some are funny, others are infused with hidden meaning, and all of them are conversation starters.

They are badges of honor and reminders of the lure this Island holds.

Back in 1901, New York became the first state to require cars to have license plates. Automobile owners made their own by imprinting their initials on leather or wood. These could arguably be called the first vanity plates. Two years later, Massachusetts started issuing state-manufactured numeric license plates, beginning with the number 1. Other states followed. Then in 1931, according to the website, Pennsylvania allowed car owners to create customized license plates. Since that time, highway reading, if that’s what you want to call it, has amused (WAS HIS on a Porsche convertible from Ontario), astounded (U R NEXT on a hearse), and encouraged (CHEK M on an Ohio plate promoting breast cancer awareness).

Currently all over the United States, car owners have the option of buying personalized license plates – although each state has different requirements. In Massachusetts, for example, license plates must start with two letters and can have a maximum of six characters, and plates cannot alternate a letter with a number, like A1B2. In New York, plates can have up to eight characters, as well as spaces in between the letters; however, you need a minimum of one letter and cannot have six numbers followed by a letter. In North Carolina, vanity plates cannot exceed eight characters, yet can include symbols such as question marks and ampersands. North Carolina has a website where you can check to see if your desired moniker is available. As of this writing, ILOVEMV, MVROCKS, and MARTHASV are available in North Carolina. Sorry, MV BOUND is already taken.


Donna Foster’s first vanity plate had the letters ILFOCAR, which, like so many of these plates, means nothing if you’re not in the know. (One could decipher it as “I love car,” or perhaps, “ill for a car.”) At the time of the ILFOCAR plate, North Carolina–based Donna Foster worked as a district sales manager for the photo industry giant Ilford. (Now it makes sense.) In 2002, she left her job to pursue a career as a photographer specializing in portraits of people and their pets, and along with the new business cards she wanted a new license plate. She recalls, “I decided I didn’t want anything advertising that I was a photographer on my car, in order to avoid someone breaking in to look for cameras.” Donna, a longtime Vineyard visitor, started brainstorming with her parents, Herb and the late Anita Foster, who had retired to Edgartown in 1998. “One of my goals was to bring my business to the Vineyard,” recalls Donna. “MV BOUND popped into my head.” Unfortunately the plate wasn’t available, so Donna settled with MVYBOUND. “I checked every year at renewal time to see if MV BOUND had become available.” In 2002, she was able to get the license plate she wanted. “There’s a couple from New Jersey that plans on retiring to the Vineyard who have MV BOUND,” says Donna, noting that in New Jersey you are only allowed seven spaces for letters. “I met them when they saw my plate and followed me down the Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road.”


On any given steamy summer day, cars honoring Chilmark on their license plates can be found lined up in the Lucy Vincent Beach parking lot. These love letters to the town come from numerous states across the country and Canada.

Jack Davies, a longtime seasonal Chilmark resident from Washington, D.C., got a CHILMK plate for his car five years ago. He says he submitted his top three choices for plates and was surprised to get his first choice. The car has Massachusetts plates, and presumably CHILMK would be sought after in the town’s home state. “The Vineyard is something you want to keep with you,” says Jack, adding, “It’s a good conversation piece.”

Betsy Ross, from Ohio, got her CHILMRK plate four years ago. A lifelong Vineyard visitor, she wanted the plate to pay tribute to the Island she loves. Her husband’s car has a license plate that reads MOCEANV, which even for Vineyarders takes a clear head to decipher. “My father is a developer in Ohio,” says Betsy. “He named a street Chilmark Road, and people are always asking me if we got the license plate because of the road.”


Ellie Rider is a seasonal Sengekontacket resident, as you might surmise by looking at her SENGE license plate. Warm-spirited and ebullient, Ellie was introduced to the Vineyard on her first date with Jim Rider, the man whom she would later marry. Jim had recently bought a house in Sengekontacket with his brother and sister-in-law and was, according to Ellie, expected to remain a bachelor. “When I met him, I didn’t even know what the Vineyard was,” laughs Ellie, who was raised in Louisiana. She adds, “Jim thought the Vineyard was heaven on earth.”

Once married and living in Washington, D.C., Jim, who passed away five years ago, liked to shower Ellie with gifts that reminded him of the Vineyard, like a necklace with a pendant in the shape of Martha’s Vineyard. He’d say, “I’m the one that gets to look at it when you wear it.” One year, for her birthday, he surprised her with a MVYARD license plate. “I said, ‘What did you do that for?’” recalls Ellie, noting that while she had certainly grown fond of the Island, she didn’t inhale it as Jim did. “I suppose it was because my car was the one we took to the Vineyard,” says Ellie.

She got the MVYARD plate during a time, almost difficult to fathom now, before most Washingtonians knew about Martha’s Vineyard. Few could figure out how to interpret the plate. She says, “I was always getting stopped at lights by people asking me what it meant.” Indeed, to some extent, Jim intended for it to be a bit ambiguous. “He didn’t want people to figure it out, like it was his secret,” says Ellie. “MVYARD can mean a lot of different things.”
They got the SENGE plate, which is equally obscure to those not in the know, years later in honor of both their house, which they named Senge, and their West Highland terrier, also named Senge.


Edgartown-born-and-raised Susan Brown projects an aura worthy of an MVLADY. She comes across as classy and down-to-earth with a playful sense of humor. For many years, Susan and her husband, Stuart, lived in Florida during the winter. When he wanted to start spending summers in Canada, Susan felt that she needed something to remind her of her roots. Her husband, who has since passed away, surprised her one Christmas with an MVLADY license plate. “A friend of mine, who is a cop and doesn’t know the Vineyard, asked me why I got a license plate that says motor vehicle lady,” Susan says with a laugh. She admits to trying to live up to the words on her plate: “I do drive more like a lady now.” There is one repercussion that came with having an MVLADY license plate. “My son refuses to drive my car,” chortles Susan. But is he man enough cart away brush in an MV LADY wheelbarrow?


In 1981, Barry Sullivan went jogging with a group of friends and friends of friends, and mentioned he was soon to be married. These types of conversations tend to progress in a rather scripted form, as this one did:

“Where are you going on your honeymoon?” asked a fellow jogger.

“We don’t know yet,” responded Barry.

“I’m from Martha’s Vineyard. You should go there. It’s really nice,” piped up one of the joggers. (For some reason, people from Martha’s Vineyard often seem to be present during these types of conversations, which could lead one to speculate that they are actually undercover agents planted by the Island’s Chamber of Commerce.)

The newlywed couple did indeed spend their honeymoon on the Vineyard. Two years later, they returned for a vacation with their one-year-old daughter. Two years after that, they started renting in Edgartown.

The Rochester, New York–based Barry and Dottie Sullivan now have four children and own a home in Aquinnah. “One day we were on the highway driving from Corning to Rochester, and a sports car comes flying by with license plate O2BINLA,” recalls Dottie. “And we said, why don’t we do that?”


Peggy and Rick Quagliaroli also demonstrate their longing for the Vineyard on their license plate. Seasonal Edgartown residents, Peggy and Rick spend their off-Island time living in Connecticut. The couple says before getting their own personalized plate, they shared a fascination in trying to decipher the meaning of license plates they saw. They decided to get theirs as a fiftieth birthday present to themselves.

In Connecticut, you are limited to six letters and you cannot mix letters with numbers. They had seen variations of O2BONMV and O2BINMV and wanted to work with that concept. OTBNMV fit their needs. “We got the plate,” recalls Peggy, “and my father said, ‘Why’d you get a license plate that says Off-Track Betting on Martha’s Vineyard?”


Kristi Jo McCabe has had personalized license plates since she started driving. Most notable was the KRISTI plate early on, and later the BOOTLEGG plate, a testimonial to her family’s colorful heritage. For the past decade, Kristi Jo, her husband Brian, and sons Kris and Kevin have memorialized their home away from home on their license plates. In 1998, they built a house in Edgartown near the Katama airfield. Five years later, the McCabes, whose primary residence is in Kingston, New York, bought an instrument-rated airplane, which decreased their commute time to an irresistible hour and fifteen minutes. “We love the Vineyard and love flying,” says Kristi. To recognize their dual passions, the McCabes, seen here with three cars and their airplane, are proud drivers of cars with a FLYMV license plate, a KMVY plate (KMVY are the call letters for the Martha’s Vineyard Airport), and a N98MV plate, which is also the aircraft registration number for their plane. The 98 refers to 1998, the year they built their house. The fun doesn’t end with the cars and plane, though – their boat’s registration is MA9800MV.