Making a Difference

A venerable Island leader with a longtime construction business, John Early talks about life on the Vineyard, how affordable housing here should change, and lessons he learned in the Peace Corps.

John Early’s office contains the usual things found in a contractor’s work space: a drafting table, building code regulations, architectural plans, issues of Fine Homebuilding. His office contains a smattering of personal things too: a framed collection of pocket knives, two pictures of the Taj Mahal, a Three Stooges clock, and a poster of a sinking ship. The poster hangs above John’s desk. “Mistakes,” it reads. “It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.”

His accomplishments are many, both as a longstanding Island politician and as the proprietor of a highly regarded construction company, but what John talks about first are his missteps in life. He appears at peace with them, comfortable owning up. “I’ve made every mistake there is to make, at least once,” he says. He pauses, then explains that from his errors, he’s honed his craft. He’s learned from them. To some degree, he believes in them: “If you show me somebody who’s not making any mistakes,” he says, “I’ll show you someone who’s not working too hard.”

Professionally, he has lofty goals for himself and his company, which he started in 1975. “Seamless construction is what we strive to achieve,” he says. He speaks proudly of his crew. “We have guys who can figure out how to do anything,” he says. Most of those guys have been with the company at least a decade. “My top two people [Lenny Butler and Glenn Andrews] have been with me since 1972. They were working for Sam Sherman and then they came with me. We spent a lot of time figuring out how to do things right.”

Several coffee table books featuring quality, custom-built homes include examples of John’s craftsmanship. The styles of architecture showcased in the books vary widely, from sleek contemporary structures to renovations of classic New England homes. Jill Neubauer, an architect with an office in Falmouth, includes one of John’s houses in her online portfolio.

Jill and John worked together on the renovation of the oldest house in Menemsha, a cape dating from 1724. The house needed significant structural repair, yet the owners wanted to retain its antique character. “It was a project that needed so much respect, care, and thoughtfulness,” Jill says. “It is neat how his integrity and his patience and his depth of talent just so matched what needed to be done.” To fix the house, John and his crew surgically deconstructed it, taking out floorboards one by one, labeling them and then setting them aside for later reinstallation, after the framing had been replaced and the infrastructure updated. “It was so rewarding to be able to give the house a new life for another two hundred years,” Jill says.

John’s relationship with old Vineyard houses began in his childhood, with summertime visits to the Deacon Chase house, a 1764 cape in West Tisbury at Seven Gates Farm that was purchased in 1924 by his maternal grandfather, John Spalding Flannery. John Early’s mother, Virginia Flannery Early, brought her five children to spend a month at the house every summer. The Seven Gates Farm Corporation gave John his first job. He was twelve and he earned one dollar an hour doing manual labor, such as dealing with the garbage. His favorite task was walking behind the tractor-pulled road grader, picking up the churned-up stones and then hurling them into the woods.

Years later, in 1975, the Deacon Chase house became the first official project of John G. Early, Contractor and Builder. John’s aunt and uncle deGeofroy owned the house by this time, and they wanted to renovate and improve it. “It was a kind of a testing ground for me,” John says. A fair amount of trial-and-error was involved. “A lot of what I did in that house has come back to haunt me.” Still, he says, “It was an adventure.” And working on it included moments of magic, like the time he found a box of old paperwork in a closet that contained a bill from William Dugan, the contractor his grandfather had hired to put on an addition when he first bought the house. Dugan’s bill included the names of all of the carpenters working on the house. Several of them were people John knew as elders in the community.

Now John himself can be considered an elder in the community. His standing is not so much age-related as it is recognition of his decades of quiet, effective public service.

Pass him on the road, and you see evidence of his commitment to the community in the rack of lights on the roof of his truck. Those lights go on when the emergency dispatcher calls for firefighters. John has been a member of the West Tisbury fire department for forty years; he serves as an assistant chief. In the past, those lights went on for medical emergencies too. In the 1970s, John signed up for the first emergency medical technician course offered on the Island, and stayed on the job until the toll got to him: the frequent summertime moped accidents, the calls that put him in the middle of personal crises of people he knew, the call to the car accident in which his employee and friend Gordon “Gordy” Otis lost his life.

His public credits include two decades as a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and three decades as a West Tisbury selectman. He ran for selectman in 1977 as a write-in candidate; he won the post and stayed on the job until 2007. The West Tisbury Town Report was dedicated to John that year. Town counsel Ronald Rappaport wrote the official dedication, using the words “decency,” “common sense,” and “respect” to describe the nature of John’s service. He is also remembered as the selectman who wore shorts – all year-round, barring snow. (“I just wear shorts because I hate long pants...and I have a heater under my desk,” John explains.)

“I saw West Tisbury go from a little tiny hamlet to a real political subdivision,” John says of his tenure as a selectman. Statistics back him up. In fiscal year 1977, the town of West Tisbury passed appropriations amounting to $750,889.95; real property in the town was valued at just under $6.7 million dollars. Thirty years later, John’s last year as selectman, the town appropriated $2.2 million, and the real property in the town was valued at nearly $2.9 billion.

The nature of John’s construction business has changed almost as much as the nature of West Tisbury. “It used to be a handshake and people would wait for us,” he says. Now jobs involve complicated written contracts and everyone is in a hurry. John incorporated his business in 1998 as John G. Early, Contractor and Builder, with a chief financial officer and official project managers. “I used to do the whole thing myself. Now I’ve got people doing it for me. My biggest problem is letting them.”

The incorporation of the company came around the same time as a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. A person with Parkinson’s, a treatable but incurable neurological condition, could easily feel sorry for himself. Not John. “It was my turn to get something,” he says with a shrug. And really, he says, it’s not so bad. “I feel really lucky I have so little outward symptoms,” he says. His gait is a little affected by the disease, his facial muscles are a little slow to shift into a grin, but he doesn’t tremble. “All in all, it’s a pretty good deal,” he says.

What isn’t a good deal, and what John is most passionate about discussing now, is his current political focus: the problem of affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard. “Affordable housing – or the lack thereof – is the bottom line in my way of thinking,” he says. “Most people find employment here. Most people find a way to get to eat. But the deck is so stacked against them in terms of housing.”

He’s been trying to fix this problem since his days as a West Tisbury selectman. His first efforts involved youth lots, whereby town residents received building lots far below market value. “That’s a great idea,” John says, except he has come to consider it flawed. He elaborates: To keep youth lots in the affordable housing pool in perpetuity, the town places deed restrictions on the property, and the deed restrictions mean the homeowner cannot qualify for standard financing. The lots in question often require special permitting to even be considered buildable. “Structurally, it’s not going to work,” he says.

“What we really need is rental subsidies,” he says. “And that is not sexy enough for most people.” That’s a pretty big statement coming from John, who worked on affordable housing as a selectman, is a former member of the Island Housing Trust, and is chairman of the currently inactive Island Housing Fund. Both organizations have addressed the problem of affordable housing by building single-family homes to sell to qualified residents. Now John would like to explore a different approach.

In part, he has come to see rental subsidies and rental units as the solution to the Island’s affordable housing crisis through his involvement with Island Elderly Housing (IEH), a nonprofit organization created in 1977 to address the housing needs of low-income seniors and people with disabilities. Currently he serves as chairman of the IEH board.

“Without any public fanfare, without any public money from this tax base,” John says, IEH was able to build 165 rental units in four complexes located in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs. The group utilized federal dollars, administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Agriculture. “That’s the only real housing development that stands on its own merits,” he says.

John says the key to IEH’s success was the donation of the land. As John talks about land, he expresses another evolved opinion. “The Land Bank is a wonderful institution,” he says, “but they’ve done enough.” For John, it’s a matter of math. Since the acreage of the Vineyard is finite, each acre preserved increases the value of each acre remaining open to development. The more values are enhanced, the less affordable land becomes to those with modest incomes. (According to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, approximately 34 percent of the Vineyard is public open space or protected by a conservation restriction.)

He would like to see a mechanism put in place so that those who build large houses on the Vineyard contribute in a more meaningful way to the affordable housing cause. “It’s got to be fair and equitable or it won’t work,” he says. “It really needs to be well thought out and universally applied so that it hurts everybody equally.” He recognizes that in talking about tapping those who build large houses on the Vineyard, he’s talking about some of his clients.

“We’re known for being a big-house company,” he says. That is partly what motivates him to put so much effort into the affordable housing cause. If he is going to be building what are effectively villages for the affluent, he wants to also be building villages – or helping to pay the rent – for the less well-to-do. “I’m not a tree-hugger by any stretch,” he says, “but I do feel a responsibility to try to not be part of the problem.”

So he puts in his time, and money. There are many days he feels it’s a losing battle. Every time a big old residence – one that used to house college kids in the summer or serve as year-round apartments – gets bought and turned into a boutique bed-and-breakfast, he sees another opportunity lost.
Then there are the good days, the ones in which he dreams of a small-scale elderly housing project in North Tisbury within walking distance to the grocery store, the drug store, and the bank. He has his eye on a property for that project. He smiles. It would be a good one, one that would keep low-income up-Island elders from having to move to the big city. (“Big city” is his Yankee-style wit for Oak Bluffs or Vineyard Haven.)

As John talks about possible projects, using academic terminology to describe personal realities, the pictures of the Taj Mahal hanging on the wall of his office begin to take on significance. They reflect John’s real start in public service, which was not the day he joined the West Tisbury fire department, but rather the day in 1968 when he arrived in Azamgarh, India, as a Peace Corps volunteer, his political science degree from Cornell University fresh in hand.

John spent four years in India, working with the prime minister’s Drought Relief Committee to try to help the young nation’s farmers feed the country’s 500 million–plus people. When he left the country, he planned to rest for a couple of months on the Vineyard, intending to return. “I thought I was going to go back to India and go back into international development work,” he says. Somehow those couple of months of rest on the Vineyard turned into a couple of years, turned into a company and numerous Island political posts, turned into a life. Still, India and the lessons he learned there remain with him at the forefront. “I learned how to deal with people,” he says of his time in India. “I learned when not to talk.” John says a man he held in high regard once gave him a bit of very good advice: “You should never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.”