Thomas E. Thatcher — Island potter and instructor in pottery making, historian of the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury, longtime resident of West Tisbury and Vineyard Haven, and a short-term resident of Chilmark — died on May 20 at the Royal Cotuit Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Mashpee after a brief illness. He was 96.

He was born on Feb. 28, 1927, in Highland Park, Mich., a son of Daniel E. Thatcher and Mary Louise Wiggins Thatcher. His parents divorced and he grew up with his mother in Carthage, Mo. and Columbus, Ohio, where it was hoped he would attend Ohio State University.

“Since I had wanted since I was 15 to be a potter, I did as expected and began studying ceramic art there. But it was wartime, and I also wanted to be in the Navy,” he told oral historian Linsey Lee in an interview for Words, Faces and Voices of Island People. ”I suppose that was because I liked the water. So when I was 17, I temporarily stopped studying and joined the Navy. While I was in boot camp,” he recalled, “President Roosevelt died. Soon the war in Europe ended. But we were sent to San Francisco and were scheduled to be in the invasion of Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped.”

His ship, the USS Monitor, was sent to Tokyo Bay for the signing of the Japanese surrender and then later to Yokohama to process former prisoners of war held by the Japanese. Although it was dismaying to see how the prisoners had been treated, it was also his first glimpse of the Far East — a glimpse that would, in time, lead to his visits to Japan and Vietnam, and to his sponsoring and supporting a Vietnamese family on the Vineyard. For a time after the Vietnam War ended, he spent six months of each year in Vietnam.

“I set up two coffee shops in Saigon,” he recalled. Upstairs, he and the manager of his coffee shops also offered help to those who knew some English but wanted to learn more. He also taught English at a school for homeless boys.

In 1950, he discovered the Vineyard as a youth hosteler. After finishing ceramics studies at the College of Education at Ohio State University, he traveled by train with his bicycle from Columbus to New Haven, then cycled to Woods Hole, and arrived on the Vineyard.

In those days the Youth Hostel was operated by Lillian Manter in what had been the bachelor officer quarters at the airport during the war. Tom very much enjoyed his first Island visit. The following year Mrs. Manter asked if he would like to return. She said if he helped to fix up the hostel, he could stay there for free. He accepted her offer. He put his university education to use by teaching pottery classes in Vineyard Haven.

By 1964, he was able to purchase the hostel. In 1982 he re-sold it to the American Youth Hostel organization.

In 1951, he opened his Martha’s Vineyard Pottery Shop in Mrs. Manter’s chicken house. He was joined in this enterprise by an old friend from Ohio. By the end of the first two years, demands for the pottery they were making — largely from Island clay — were so great that the two potters needed to expand their shop. Mrs. Manter’s husband, the builder Daniel Manter, constructed a new, larger shop for the potters off State Road in West Tisbury, near the Chilmark line.

Tom began giving classes in making ceramics, as well. Thatcher ceramics are now among the collection at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

A decade later, a back problem required that he give up his own pottery making. He briefly left the Vineyard to teach ceramics at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown where his mother was a house mother.

However, he was soon back on the Island. He became more and more involved in West Tisbury’s town and church affairs. Not long after his Vineyard arrival. he had been introduced by Mrs. Manter to the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury. Once permanently and successfully settled in town he asked if, in winter, films could be shown in the parish house there to enliven cold nights. Soon after, visitors began flocking to the movie screenings.

Always devoted to music, Tom became active in seeing that a proper organ was found for the church. When the church interior needed restoration, he was able to offer advice as an artist as to what should be done. Later, he became the church historian.

By 1975, his mother had joined him on the Vineyard and he had a new house and studio built for him by Bronislaw Lesnikowski of Vineyard Haven. He and his mother sponsored a family from Vietnam. They had lived near Saigon and fled when they feared that the Communists might take over the city. Tom had learned of the family’s plight from the International Red Cross in Boston. He saw no reason why they should not be welcomed to the Vineyard and housed at the Youth Hostel or a Thatcher residence.

In recent years, he had lived in Vineyard Haven. He lived for a while in his own house on Franklin street but at the time of his death he had happily made his home at the Love House in an apartment overlooking the harbor. There he always kept bright flowers on the window sill, and the water he loved was never out of his sight.

Tom was interred on Wednesday, May 25 in the West Tisbury Village Cemetery during a service conducted by the Rev. Cathlin Baker and attended by his longtime friends. Tales of his life on the Vineyard and his contributions to the Island were told. As was his request, Taps was played by John Schilling in recognition of Tom’s naval service during World War II.

A memorial service will be held at a later date.

Memorial contributions made in his name may be sent to the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury, P.O. Box 3000, PMB 3111, West Tisbury, MA 02575.