Thomas Teller

Clerk Magistrate Retires after 39 Years of Service

By JULIA WELLS Gazette Senior Writer

He is a local boy, an Edgartown native with fishing in his soul and justice in his heart and deft hands that can shuck quahaugs just as easily as they wield the varnished wooden gavel that is the tool of the district court clerk magistrate. For many years he was a lone Democrat laboring in a Republican stronghold, and today, of course, all that has changed, but after 39 years what hasn't?

Here is one thing: Good old-fashioned ribbing, the kind that takes place among the locals in a small town on a small Island.

It's Friday morning and Thomas Teller, longtime Edgartown district court clerk magistrate and only the third clerk in the history of the court, has just finished an interview with the Gazette on the occasion of his retirement. There is a final request from the photographer: Would Mr. Teller stand on the front steps of the courthouse to have his picture taken?

The venerable - and sometimes irascible - court clerk obliges. When Mr. Teller steps outside, Philip J. Norton Jr., the town moderator and respected local attorney whose late father was the first clerk of the district court, just happens to be standing on the sidewalk, an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth. As Mr. Teller buttons his sport coat, Mr. Norton dispenses waistline advice. "Suck the stomach in, suck it in," he tells his old friend. A couple of Edgartown police officers who are milling around nearby join the banter. "Why don't you just use some old photos from the bass derby?" one tells the photographer. "Oh, that's right, I forgot. Tommy, you never did get your picture in the derby, did you?" The reply from Mr. Teller is quick. "Got any cases coming up this week?" he growls at the young cop.

It's a classic Teller moment, funny and unscripted and played by local characters. But Tom Teller has always had a leading role among the local characters.

Next Wednesday Mr. Teller will retire as district court clerk magistrate at age 71, after 39 years on the job. On this Friday in the second-floor courtroom in the old brick courthouse, he calls the list of cases for the second to last time. It is the usual mix of minor crimes: Drunk driving, trespassing, petty larceny. The gavel bangs softly. Second call.

Downstairs in his cramped first-floor office, Mr. Teller talks about his life and his years on the job. He was appointed by Massachusetts Gov. Endicott "Chub" Peabody on April 30, 1964, at the age of 32. At the time he was working at the old Norton and Easterbrooks boatyard in Edgartown.

"I had experience scrubbing boat bottoms and pulling moorings in the Edgartown harbor and as a result I was extraordinarily qualified to take over this job," Mr. Teller says, his straight face breaking into a merry twinkle.

He grew up on South Summer street in Edgartown, in the house where his grandparents ran a rooming home. His father was a commercial fisherman who went offshore for swordfish every summer. His mother was a schoolteacher. He began working at the age of 13 at Eldridge's Fish Market in Edgartown, where he would be sent clambering under the dock for the fresh lobsters kept in a pound there. At a young age he developed a knack for shucking quahaugs, a skill which earned him money in the summers at the fish market and around the waterfront. As he grew older he worked a number of jobs in the classic Island tradition: scalloping in the winter, fishing in the summer and tending bar in between at the Edgartown Yacht Club.

"I always had a job," he says simply. "I started out working for my family. The pay was really great," he adds, holding up thumb and index finger to form a zero.

Chronic asthma hampered his childhood and prolonged his years in school a bit, but he eventually graduated from the Edgartown High School. "I was not the valedictorian of the class - they graduated me because they didn't want me to turn 20 while I was still in high school," he says, the twinkle returning.

After high school he enlisted in the Air Force - surprised himself when he passed the physical - and spent four years in the service stationed in England. He remembers it was not the best place for his health, between the damp climate and air pollution caused by the use of soft coal for heat.

In 1955 he got out and came back to the Island, where he went to work for John Mayhew, a West Tisbury fisherman. Later he took a job at the boatyard.

But working in boatyards and on the water eventually began to take its toll on his health. He developed a bad back, and after a checkup Dr. Robert Nevin, who was just about everybody's family doctor, had some advice for the young Mr. Teller. "He told me I better find another line of work," he recalls.

Then he learned that the court clerk job was open. Phil Norton had retired three years earlier and his replacement, John Nichols, was leaving. It was a governor's appointment and there were seven or eight other people interested. Mr. Teller went to see his old friend and mentor, Edgartown businessman and selectman Robert J. Carroll. Democrats were scarce as hen's teeth in Edgartown at the time, but Mr. Carroll was one. He put in a word with Governor Peabody and Mr. Teller got the job.

His training was all on the job; he spent 12 weeks as an understudy in the Quincy district court and after that he was on his own - literally. The first year he handled 350 cases and did all of his own typing and paperwork by hand. The pay was $6,000 a year.

Last year he handled 1,400 cases.

In his early years, common drunkenness was a crime, and he remembers the local police would assist in what amounted to a sort of early form of human services. "These homeless people - you know, police officers would go and give them a buck or two and they would go and buy a pint of wine and then later the police would arrest them for being drunk and they would get sent to Bridgewater for the winter, where they would be taken care of."

Today drunk driving has replaced common drunkenness as one of the frequent crimes on the Vineyard; Mr. Teller said drunk driving accounts for about a third of the cases he handles.

He was the court clerk during the infamous incident on Chappaquiddick in July of 1969, and he recalls the mad chaos as the national press corps descended on the Island, and later paralysis around an inquest that dragged on for months. "I always had an open-door policy with the press. But I came to work that morning [the morning after Sen. Edward M. Kennedy drove his car off the Dike Bridge, ending in the death of his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne] and there were about 500 members of the press waiting at my door," he recalls. "I started coming in at night to get my work done because it was such a zoo during the day."

The talk turns frequently and effortlessly to fishing, and Mr. Teller spins out the stories. Yes, it's true that his wife of 48 years and former high school classmate Estey Look Teller catches bigger fish than he does. Yes, he still goes scalloping, and, of course, the derby is sacrosanct.

But ask him about the cases he has seen over the years and the stories stop.

"I really don't like to talk about cases because some of the people are still around," he says.

Many say that Tom Teller has a reputation for being tough but fair, especially when it comes to teenagers.

"I don't know . . . . I have never forgotten that I used to be 16 years old once, too," he says. "Kids are going to do things and they're going to get caught and most of them deserve a break. Some people think these kids are wise guys, but I know that kids sometimes put up a kind of shield and it's not so much that they are being surly as it is because they are using surly as a shield. All of us have had somebody give us a break at one point in our lives."

He has a sudden thought. The person he admires most in the Vineyard community, he says, is Dr. Milton Mazer, the pioneering Vineyard psychiatrist who helped found Martha's Vineyard Community Services. "He probably had a bigger impact on this community than anybody else I can think of. He helped so many people and I always admired him for what he did with almost no help. Back in those days a lot of people ended up in institutions who didn't need to be there."

He takes credit for launching the practice of using multiple counts in the district court, where previously every separate count was handled as a separate crime. But when it comes to his own accomplishments, he is decidedly self-effacing.

"I've made a few mistakes over the years, but that's why they put erasers on pencils," he says.

About his retirement Mr. Teller is mostly sanguine - he hasn't taken a real vacation in two years; he's tired of battling budget cuts and the bureaucracy; he looks forward to fishing; he plans to read all the Louis L'Amour books.

"When it's time to retire, you know," he says quietly, and for just a minute there is something in his eye.

But then the twinkle returns.

"I figure probably it won't hit me until I go to press my pants in the morning. I always press my pants before I go to work - I never liked baggy pants. So I figure it probably won't hit me until I wake up and realize that I don't have to press my pants," he says.