If Phronsie Conlin were here to see the image I chose for this celebration of her life, she would certainly say: “Oh, why do you always choose that old photograph!”
I can hear her voice now. But it must be obvious to everyone who knew her that this photograph expresses an essential part of Phronsie, her joie de vivre — sailing aboard her uncle’s catboat out of Harthaven with a big smile and wind in her hair. At her 100th birthday party last summer, everyone could clearly see that younger woman in the tilt of her head, her smile, the flash of her eyes.
Phronsie died on Thursday, July 9, at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital one day shy of her 101st birthday.
She was born in New Britain, Conn. on July 10, 1919 to Frank Gerold Vibberts and Grace Chamberlain Vibberts. She was the youngest of five children, Eleanor, Frank, Anna and Jack.
She first came to the Vineyard in the summer of 1922 when her parents rented a house in Harthaven. Eight years later, they purchased a home overlooking Harthaven Harbor. Phronsie learned to sail with other children in a school presided over by her uncle, Howard Hart, on Hamlin Pond.
After mastering the art of tacking and gybing in the pond’s sheltered water where the children could touch bottom if they capsized, they were allowed to sail in the harbor.
“We would pack picnic lunch and think we were going off to China or something!” Phronsie recalled in an oral history interview with Lindsey Lee.
Finally, they graduated to the open ocean, bounded on the south by the first inlet and the north by the Steamboat Wharf. But soon that was not enough.
“One day, a bunch of us just knew we could do it. We said, well why not? So we went to Edgartown, to Chappy Beach Club, to swim. There were about six boats. And all of a sudden this put-put came along with an older man in it, and he said: ‘Is there a Mr. Young here?’ and Bung Young, who wasn’t very tall for his age, stood up and said ‘I am Mr. Young!’ and the man said ‘Well your mother wants you to go right home.’ What a scream! So the whole fleet of us were grounded for a while, but, God, it was worth it!”
Phronsie attended the New Britain Elementary School, Mooreland Hill School in Kensington, Conn., and Abbott Academy in Andover. She graduated from Smith College in 1941. Seven months later, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
“I was at my family’s home in New Britain and after a big Sunday dinner we went into the den to listen to our big old Philco radio, which was pretty special. And the news came on about Pearl Harbor. And of course we were in shock. It was just unbelievable.”
Phronsie could not passively endure her country’s struggle. She enlisted in the Navy as a WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and was sent back to Smith for officers training School, then on to Mount Holyoke College to study encryption and to New York where she coded messages sent to Naval ships at sea.
One of Phronsie’s favorite Vineyard memories was of Darlings, the candy store that anchored Circuit avenue in Oak Bluffs for so many years.
“They had a long, long counter and in back were these machines making saltwater taffy. We knew every single color and flavor. Every one!”
In July 1948, she became a Saturday Evening Post cover girl, appearing with her family in an illustration by Steven Dohanos. Steve posed them all on the porch of their Harthaven home.
“We were ready to take the ferry to go home, off-Island, so in the picture there’s a suitcase and everybody looks casual, but we weren’t. We were looking at our watches.”
In the final cover illustration, Dohanos deployed artistic license to paint the group in a different Vineyard cottage fronting the Oak Bluffs Harbor. To make a story of it, he painted a car from Ohio to suggest the group were tourists waiting out a summer rainstorm.
In 1951, she married Edward J. Conlin, Jr. and they had three children: Phronsie Ann; Edward Joseph (Jed) Conlin 3rd, better known as Jed; and Frank Vibberts Conlin. Phronsie raised the children in Middle Haddam, Conn. Their house faced the Connecticut River and from a wide verandah they sat contentedly after work watching the boats go by. It was an idyllic chapter in their lives.
“My mother had an unusual sense of humor,” her son Frank recalled of that time. “I remember one time when she was outside in her robe and slippers swatting flies, she noticed the guys from the gas company staring at her and said to them, ‘This must look crazy but I’m just catching food for our alligator.’”
While Ed worked as a graphic artist, Phronsie earned a master’s degree at Central Connecticut College and began a career as a kindergarten and first grade teacher.
“I had no experience at all. I walked into the room and there was the class and there was me and there was the attendance sheet. It was a riot. I loved teaching. It was fascinating. You had these wonderful little people and they just blossomed before your eyes. From fall to June — you just wouldn’t know they were the same kids. I worked awfully hard at it because I was so old, all the other teachers were much younger. I was their mothers’ age.”
Phronsie’s husband, Ed, died in 1981. Seven years later, she built a home in Harthaven where she spent the rest of her life.
“I had been coming here since I was three. How could I not want to live out my days here? It just gets in your blood.
Well into her 80s, her view of Harthaven Harbor was often from behind a clam rake as she sought delectable bivalves in the sand in front of her family’s summer home.
A neighbor, Mark Grandfield, remembered a clamming outing from about 15 years ago. “We went to Sengekontacket with our rakes and waded into the shallows near the golf course. I had a wire floating basket to put my cherrystones in and noticed Phronsie did not. When we started getting clams she just put them into the top of her bathing suit saying ‘I don’t need a basket, I have a pretty good shelf right here.’”
Even after a mini-stroke, a case of blood poisoning and the discovery that she had a fluky heart valve, she drove, shopped, gardened, kept up a voluminous correspondence and entertained family and friends. She volunteered at the Chicken Alley Thrift Shop until shortly after her 96th birthday.
Among her many projects was the curating of her mother’s, Grace Chamberlain Vibberts, artistic output. Phronsie installed a dehumidifier in her basement, had racks built to store Grace’s paintings. Not content with storing things away, Phronsie created a website to perpetuate her mother’s immense creative output, featuring many of her Vineyard paintings.
Phronsie insisted on her autonomy, living alone in her secluded Harthaven home, surrounded by lists of things to do.
“When you live alone, everything gives you pleasure,” she said.
She cared for her houseplants, enjoyed watching the skunk who lived under the deck as he fed beneath the bird feeder, the change of seasons. She tended her gardens with the help of her great friend Daier Dias who had adopted her as one of his family.
Phronsie always kept up on world events even though they often disheartened her.
“If I don’t pay attention to what’s happening to people around the world I will feel guilty turning my back on them,” she said.
After the 2016 election she fortified herself by placing copies of the Constitution randomly about her house.
She celebrated her 100th birthday with a party at the Portuguese American Club on July 11, 2019. About 250 people attended the celebration.
Phronsie was full of joy and good will. She was a wise, kind, energetic and playful human being. She was the beating heart of Harthaven. It seemed she would carry on forever. And for all of us who love her, she does.