Travis Tuck, metal sculptor, died on Monday evening in the company of a band of close friends. Mr. Tuck, 59, of Vineyard Haven, was the Island's most celebrated artisan. He made weather vanes of copper and bronze, but saying that doesn't come close to describing the many facets of either his artistry or his personality.
Mr. Tuck was deeply rooted in the fabric of the Vineyard community. He served on fire departments and emergency medical technician squads over a span of 20 years. He served in town government, the Air Force and was active in the community. He loved to talk about the day's issues, give news tips to reporters and put together impromptu gatherings.
To his closest of friends, he was a pleasure to be with. Mr. Tuck had plenty to share. He was a humorist, who found fun in the quiet of a Vineyard winter. His friendships circled the globe. He was a regular exhibitor at the annual agricultural fair, a contributor to the sense that the August fair was a time for reunion, a time to visit with friends along the midway.
Mr. Tuck died at his home-studio in Vineyard Haven on Monday night. Those there in the final moments knew that this is the way Mr. Tuck wanted it. Today, a black swag and wreath adorn the door of his shop on Beach street in Vineyard Haven. Mr. Tuck died after two years fighting against an aggressive lung cancer known as mesophelioma. The cancer claimed one lung, one leg and weakened one arm.
Mr. Tuck was known for his kindly appearance. While dressed for making weather vanes, he resembled a European clockmaker with his black and white moustache and worn leather apron. He was quick to put his hammer down on an anvil to talk to a visitor peering into his shop. He was always interested in sharing the stories behind his craft of making weather vanes. His copper weather vanes took the shape of boats, ospreys, dogs, dinosaurs and even a frog. Mr. Tuck infused all of them with character.
Mr. Tuck was born Feb. 20, 1943, in New York city into an eclectic American family. His paternal grandmother, Natalie Tuck, was an original Ziegfield girl, a writer and a close companion of the poet Carl Sandburg. Mr. Tuck's maternal grandmother, Hettie May Tucket, survived the Galveston flood as a child by floating on a door for three days and later married William Wallace Cox, a vice-president of the New York Central Railroad. Their daughter, Margaret Cox, married Travis Tuck's father, Jay Nelson Tuck, a celebrated journalist.
His father was the New York Post's first radio and television critic and a chairman of the New York Newspaper Guild in the 1940s and 1950s. His father was a pacifist during World War II.
Mr Tuck's brother, Jay Nelson Tuck Jr., was born April 25, 1945. He lives in Hamburg, Germany, and is a senior producer for ARD-TV News.
After graduating from Pompton Lakes High School in New Jersey in 1960, Mr. Tuck enlisted in the Air Force. He attended a yearlong course at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., reserved for elite personnel training in computers. Upon graduation he was assigned to Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts where he was retrained to repair airborne computers on the Lockheed EC-121H offshore radar picket planes. The radar picket planes were part of the SAGE system, which protected the nation from low-flying aircraft and contributed to the continuous radar defense of the East Coast during the Cold War. He was stationed at Otis Air Force Base from 1961 to 1964.
"My introduction to the Island was by flying over the Vineyard once too often," he told the Gazette the week before he died. "I looked down and decided I had to check the place out. I came over for a visit in August 1964 for a weekend, rented a bike and slept on the beach on South Beach near Katama. You could do that back then. I built a fire in the sand dunes."
It was on his return to New York city after serving in the Air Force that he learned the craft he would love for life.
In Greenwich village he worked for Hans Van deBovenkamp, a highly regarded metal sculptor. They worked on architectural pieces and copper fountains. "He used the repoussé technique, which literally means working from behind. I worked for him from 1966 to 1970 as his right-hand man. We worked in an old horse stable on West 10th street."
While there, Mr. Tuck became a founding member of the first anti-war veterans group in the country. "It was called the Veterans and Reservists to End the War in Vietnam. We met at the same conference table, in the same New York city building that my father had met when he formed the War Resisters League during World War II," he said. Mr. Tuck and his group participated in the demonstration at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968.
Mr. Tuck moved to the Island in 1970, with Merrily Glasser-Boyd. She became his first wife in 1967. Mr. Tuck worked as a carpenter and a bartender at the Lamppost. "I did spend two summers in 1965 and 1966 at the Pequot House working as a cab driver and tour guide for Otis Rogers of Oak Bluffs. I also worked for Loretta Balla at the Seaview Hotel," he said.
"My first studio on the Vineyard was in the Field Gallery in West Tisbury during two winters. I shared the space with Tom Maley," he said.
His great break in the art world occurred with the filming of the blockbuster movie Jaws in 1974. He was commissioned to make a weather vane for Quint's shark house at Menemsha. The weather vane never appeared in the movie, but so many people liked the shark design that he ended up making several.
That year he and his wife helped to form the the Martha's Vineyard Artworkers Guild, a complex for artisans supported by musicians James Taylor and Carly Simon. The building, now gone, was next door to the present-day SBS store on State Road.
He moved to the basement of the Old Ben Franklin Building on Main street in Vineyard Haven in 1981. There, for 20 years, Mr. Tuck produced weather vanes which found homes around the world, in 43 states and 11 countries.
Mr. Tuck loved the media and the media loved him. He was knowledgeable about weather vanes and their history. Stories about him appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe and Architectural Digest. Television programs on Mr. Tuck and his work were broadcast nationally.
His weather vanes stand atop the Edgartown and Tisbury town halls, atop the Agricultural Society hall in West Tisbury and on the rooftops of both Cronig's stores. In July of 2001 he completed his largest weather vane, a 10-foot depiction of a Nittany Lion commissioned for the Penn State Beaver Stadium. That weather vane was built at his temporary studio next door to Cronig's.
While he has had many assistants over the years, it was his four-year working relationship with Anthony Holand that allowed Mr. Tuck to start thinking of a successor when he was diagnosed with cancer. He moved into his present location more than a year ago, and a new enterprise was formed named Tuck & Holand.
Mr. Tuck was diagnosed with mesophelioma, a form of cancer typically associated with asbestos exposure, in September of 2000, a short time after buying his present studio and home. His right lung was removed in November 2000, and in January 2002 the disease claimed his right leg.
Not long after the stitches from his leg surgery had healed, he attended the Tisbury town meeting last spring in a wheelchair and was quick to take the microphone and speak in favor of burying the power lines on Main street.
Mr. Tuck continued to work and to travel as he fought the disease, and recently became engaged to Kathryn Roessel, also of Tisbury, the Martha's Vineyard member of the Steamship Authority. He was among those who encouraged her to apply for the authority position. "Travis really believed in people," Ms. Roessel said this week, "and he had a knack for helping people believe in themselves."
He began serving as a volunteer fireman in West Tisbury in 1971. "My first big fire was when the large airport hanger burned down," he said. As a fireman for 18 years he rose to the position of lieutenant with brush breaker number two. That vehicle will be part of a procession planned for tomorrow. He was a certified emergency medical technician from 1979 to 1994 and was a member of the Chilmark fire department. "Those were some of my greatest experiences. They are among the best people I have ever met," he said.
Mr. Tuck served on the West Tisbury finance committee for five years, was president of the West Tisbury Arts Council for a couple of years and a member of the Barnacle Club and American Legion.
He was an avid sailor and loved to be on other people's boats, anything as big as a 12 metres or the Shenandoah. He crewed on wooden sailboats in the Carribean and owned a 22-foot Sailmaster Lark.
He visited Europe 40 times. He went from Switzerland to Hong Kong by rail in 1984. In 1985 he bought a BMW touring motorcycle so he could ride behind the Iron Curtain before the wall came down.
In the last days of his life, a processional of friends visited him almost hourly at his home. There were hugs and exchanged stories. When the first steel beams were erected for the new Mansion House across the street, Mr. Tuck sat at his bedroom window in his wheelchair and watched the work closely while holding a telephone in one hand and talking to a distant caller.
"I have been very lucky. I have had great friends, great lovers and great relationships," he said.
Mr. Tuck will be remembered for having made Martha's Vineyard a destination for art work. There is not an Island artisan, painter or sculptor who didn't benefit from Mr. Tuck's advocacy for fine craftsmanship. He was like his weather vanes, built of the finest materials inside and out.
He is survived by his son, Nelson Tuck, his brother, Jay, and his fiancée, Kathryn Roessel.
He leaves three former wives: Merrily Glasser-Boyd, Eva Kaestlin (Nelson's mother) and Eleanor Tuck.
A memorial service will be held this Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury. After meeting at the hall to share stories, mourners will follow the casket on foot to the West Tisbury Cemetery accompanied by a Dixieland band. A graveside service with military honors will follow.
A BYOB potluck dinner is scheduled for 4 p.m. back at the agricultural hall. All this is in as Mr. Tuck wished it. He wanted his memorial to be a celebration, and he told that to organizer Bill Haynes, former West Tisbury fire chief.
Donations in Mr. Tuck's memory may be made to Hospice of Martha's Vineyard Inc., P.O. Box 2549, Oak Bluffs, MA 02557. Flowers may be sent to the Chapman, Cole and Gleason Funeral Home in Oak Bluffs.