Flags all across Edgartown - at Memorial Wharf, the county courthouse, Memorial Park and the American Legion Post 186 - flew at half-staff this week to mourn Barbara B. Nevin, a leading citizen of the town, who died unexpectedly on Friday at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. Mrs. Nevin was 79 and the widow of Dr. Robert W. Nevin.
Bobbie Nevin was a Realtor and broker, a board member on half a dozen vital town and Island organizations, widow of the last house-calling country doctor on Martha's Vineyard, world traveler, expert jam and jelly maker and an irreverent spirit in the village. The news of her death jumped from house to house and street corner to street corner Friday morning. It felt suddenly as if the whole town had stumbled at the end of summer, for among Mrs. Nevin's many gifts and accomplishments, a central one was her ability to bring together hundreds of people who, by reason of work or neighborhood or outlook, would otherwise never have met, let alone befriended one another.
At parties on holidays ranging from Christmas to St. Patrick's Day to the Kentucky Derby, she would introduce fishermen, contractors and electricians to businessmen, lawyers and academics over steaming pots of soup in her home on Pease's Point Way. Those who might have been forgotten or perhaps even ostracized by small town life were taken to lunch at the Edgartown Yacht Club. The high school football team was welcomed into her home to celebrate seasons of both victory and defeat.
In all of this, she joyfully led and upheld a great tradition of the Nevin family on Martha's Vineyard - looking after people. Dr. Nevin, for example, was a general practitioner at a one-man office who quietly visited and cared for Islanders of every sort for 54 years. Her late daughter, Kate, was often the first person many young mainlanders met when they came to the Vineyard early in the 1970s, disappointed with the culture and values of mainland life and searching for something better on what was then a quieter and simpler Island.
Mrs. Nevin was also a leading realtor and broker on the Island. She started her business, Barbara B. Nevin Real Estate on Upper Main street in Edgartown, with one other broker in 1979, after working for another company for several years. In the following 23 years, hers became one of the best known real estate offices on the Island, each year helping scores of families and individuals buy, sell and rent homes in all six Vineyard towns. Among these were some of the most prominent visitors of recent years, including the staff of President Bill Clinton, the late Princess of Wales, and the stars and creative team of the movie Jaws, for whom she served as production secretary in the spring and summer of 1974.
The office, which will remain in business, was at one time the exclusive Vineyard representative of Sotheby's International Realty. But it remained an informal and fun business for all seven of its brokers - including her son, Robert - to work for, and one principle guided Mrs. Nevin above all others, said Jacqueline Ann Pimentel of Edgartown, a broker in the office:
"She was an ethical person, and enjoyed that reputation above anything else. She would always err on the side of caution and integrity. Her only prejudices were against injustices and hypocrisy."
To right a wrong, Mrs. Nevin would go anywhere. In 1963, her husband, Dr. Nevin, drove with four friends to a civil rights demonstration in Williamston, N.C., after another Islander, the Rev. Henry L. Bird, was arrested there. Dr. Nevin, a Republican, went as a Vineyarder, a physician and a conservative to demonstrate that equal rights ought to be the cause of everyone. Dr. Nevin was thrown in jail, too. So Bobbie Nevin traveled down to North Carolina as a Vineyarder, a Democrat and a liberal to bail him out.
Like her husband, Mrs. Nevin was renowned for her sense of humor, and the two of them made a remarkable and surprising pair of comedians. He was short, often dressed in dark gray, and possessed of the most captivatingly impassive poker face imaginable. She was a mite taller, expressive and more colorful in her dress, delighting in a collection of hats that would have made Queen Elizabeth II pant with envy. They would stand together at a party or on a street corner, and when, masterfully, Dr. Nevin began to tell one of his stories about some idiosyncrasy of Island life, Mrs. Nevin would watch him with her smile growing ever wider and more mischievous, until the doctor ended the tale with a thrillingly off-color observation, and Mrs. Nevin would cackle delightedly.
Her own ability to get a laugh relied more on archness and the delivery of an entirely unexpected one-liner. At her funeral service at the Old Whaling Church on Wednesday, a granddaughter remembered once when she and her grandmother were in Boston, having brunch at the Ritz-Carlton and watching a spring fashion show. The granddaughter was roughly 12 at the time:
"Shapely young women wearing dresses that had apparently been sprayed onto their bodies strolled between the tables striking poses, and I found myself staring at them and then getting very self-conscious for staring. Gam, seeing my self-consciousness, leaned over, patted my arm and said, ‘It's all right, honey, everybody is a little bit queer.'"
Barbara Barry was the middle child of the Rev. Gerald Van Osten Barry and Dumont deBirmingham Barry, born in Sloan's Hospital in the Chelsea section of New York city on July 4, 1923. She liked to say that she was born in Hell's Kitchen - though that is some 25 blocks north - and was intensely proud of and delighted by her birthday, festooning her home and herself with red, white and blue on Independence Day.
She entered Wellesley College but left halfway through her sophomore year in January 1943 to marry George W. Goethals. That marriage ended in divorce, and in 1952 she married Dr. Nevin of Edgartown, who died in 1997. Between these two marriages, she had seven children, 13 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
In the early years of his practice, things could be hard for the Nevins. The scope of the practice covered all 125 square miles of the Island, and many of Dr. Nevin's patients were - as he was - of the working classes. The Nevins and their children often awoke to find venison or shellfish on the porch, payments from patients who could not pay any other way. But the family persevered, as other Island families did in those leaner days, Mrs. Nevin a constant support to her husband and devoted mother to their children.
Mrs. Nevin's sense of adventure took her and Dr. Nevin all over the world. Her passport reads like an atlas, with stamps from Malta, Egypt, Europe from Portugal to Hungary, Cuba, New Zealand, a ride on the Orient Express and a visit to the Great Wall of China. Accounts of many of these travels - which she continued after the death of her husband - were reported in the Vineyard Gazette between 1954 and 1972.
She was also fascinated by her genealogy, which included a French count, Irish nobility and - supposedly - a natural child of King Louis XIV. "Put your best foot forward" is the motto of the Barry coat of arms. Earlier this year, she made a trip to South Carolina to research the Van Osten branch of her family, which included an officer in the Confederate army.
She continued her travels and adventures with her grandchildren, whom she frequently took to Boston to walk the Freedom Trail, go to museums and restaurants, Filene's Basement, the ballet, the circus and shows on tour. To the amazement of children and friends, her tastes widened almost unbelievably during these trips, and it was not long before she was also taking these same grandchildren to rock and roll exhibits, Celtics games and the racetrack, where, in Bobbie Nevin fashion, she taught her descendants how to bet.
She was a talented needlepointer and maker of jams, especially marmalades and beach plum jellies, which she distributed liberally to friends at Christmas. From the first, she was a strong advocate for the Christmas in Edgartown celebration, which brightens the town during what is often a gray season. Mrs. Nevin was often seen hanging Christmas wreaths on shuttered summer houses and helping to string lights on the Christmas trees lining Main street.
Her involvement in the civic affairs of town and Island were wide and deep. She was a board member of Compass Bank, the Katama Air Field and conservation park, the Vineyard Open Land Foundation, the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, the Edgartown Board of Trade and the Edgartown Public Library. For 50 years she was a member of the Edgartown Yacht Club.
Mrs. Nevin is survived by her sisters, Katherine Thoburn of Plymouth, Mich., and Pat Billings of Billerica. She is also survived by her children, Karen Goethals Colaneri of West Tisbury; George (Al) Rodman Goethals of Williamstown; Mary Jewett Goethals of Tucson, Ariz.; Barry Nevin of Edgartown; Sally Shiverick Nevin of Bow, N.H., and Robert Channing Nevin of Edgartown. A daughter, Kate Van Osten Nevin of Edgartown, died in 2000.
A funeral service was held Wednesday at the Old Whaling Church, the Rev. Bob Edmunds and the Rev. Theresa Payne-Gocha officiating. Mrs. Nevin was interred alongside her husband at the New Westside Cemetery in Edgartown.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be sent to the Edgartown Public Library, the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust or the charity of one's choice.