Surrounded by friends and colleagues, Brendan O’Neill celebrated the conclusion of his 38-year run as executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS) at the nonprofit's annual meeting Tuesday.

Emceed by VCS board president Jennifer Blum and held at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury, the event commemorated Mr. O’Neill’s lifetime of environmental stewardship and his passing of the torch to current VCS director of advocacy and education Samantha Look.

“Usually the purpose of our annual gathering is to update you on VCS accomplishments for the past year,” said Ms. Blum. “But tonight we will celebrate not only the past year, but major achievements during the past 38 years under Brendan’s leadership.”

Samantha Look will take over the executive director role at Vineyard Conservation Society next month. — Ray Ewing

Mr. O’Neill joined VCS in 1985 after securing an environmental law degree. Drawn to the Island’s environment and community, he turned down a position at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and relocated to the Vineyard from New York.

He has since spearheaded countless sustainability initiatives and conservation projects, such as the ban of single-use plastic bags and preservation of the old Nobnocket garage property in Vineyard Haven.

Several audience members at Tuesday’s meeting stepped up to the podium to reminisce about Mr. O’Neill’s work and dedication to the Island.
Former VCS board member Ginny Jones applauded his passionate advocacy and simultaneous diplomacy over contentious Island issues.

“Over the years, Brendan has become my go-to person on local conservation issues,” she said. “His abilities and knowledge aren’t fluffy and arcane. They’re real and deeply felt.”

For his parting words, Mr. O’Neill reflected on some of his most meaningful projects, including the protection of Island watersheds.

“Reducing development potential by conserving land in the watershed is perhaps the single most important thing we can do to safeguard the health of our ponds, protect natural systems, economic productivity and fend off climate change impacts,” he said.

Pondering what he’ll enjoy most about retirement, Mr. O’Neill said that he looks forward to reading the newspaper like a regular person.

“It’s the little things, you know, like reading a hard copy of the newspaper from front to back,” he said laughing. “Instead of starting with the legal notices, then the real estate transactions, then the obituaries.”

Ms. Look had the evening’s closing words, expressing her commitment to climate change mitigation and resilience, and honoring Mr. O’Neill’s legacy.

“Brendan will not be replicated,” she said. “His are impossible shoes to fill or footsteps to trace… yet it’s with great excitement and some bravery that I welcome the honor and opportunity to lead this organization in its next chapter.”

Ms. Look officially starts as VCS's executive director on July 1.