John Early, 74, died on Sept. 11, 2020, after struggling for many years with complications of Parkinson’s disease. A longtime resident of West Tisbury, and later Chilmark, he gave much of his adult life to Martha’s Vineyard organizations and causes while leading one of the Island’s premier construction companies. He leaves a legacy of service, solidly and honestly built dwellings, and lives touched.
John G. Early was born on Oct. 19, 1945, the oldest of five children of Tom and Virginia Early. He grew up in Old Greenwich, Conn., in a boisterous household full of siblings, all their friends, and cousins who lived next door. He attended St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Greenwich and Cornell University, where he received his B.A. in political science in 1967, and did postgraduate coursework in Asian history, language, and culture, hoping his planned Peace Corps assignment would take him to Thailand. Instead, the Peace Corps sent him to India, where he spent more than four years working on drought relief and well-drilling projects, and gaining an abiding taste for food so spicy it would kill a normal man.
Returning from India in 1972, John came to Martha’s Vineyard, the home of his childhood summers, to ponder his options for the future. He never left. He worked as a carpenter with Sam Sherman in the variously named Xanadu Construction and Noman’s Construction, where he teamed up with the late Gordon Otis and Marc Widdiss, as well as Len Butler, Glenn Andrews, and other fine craftsmen who would work with him the rest of his career. By 1975, his business had morphed into John G. Early, Contractor and Builder, with a pyramid and flag logo as enigmatic as the boss. The crew scratched crude pyramids into concrete at all their projects to signify stability and permanence, but the symbol also gave rise to John’s nickname of “Pharaoh,” and jokes about his being a sphinx for his habit of listening more than speaking. He was a master of wry one-liners. John treated his crew like family, but when asked how many people worked for him, he was known to quip, “About half of them.” His parents’ retirement home, built on land in Seven Gates Farm his grandfather acquired in 1924, was his company’s first ground-up building project. In the 40 years John headed the company, the crew completed some of the Vineyard’s signature homes, as well as renovations small and large, many for repeat clients.
John was driven to serve. As his illness cramped his acuity and mobility, his greatest frustration was no longer feeling of use to others. When he ran for selectman of West Tisbury at 30, a hippie with long hair who drove a truck, nobody imagined he’d serve 30 years, contribute to the work of just about every town committee, and see the town through explosive growth and change. Among his missions was improving the Town Hall, a project that was underway when he retired. He also served on the West Tisbury School building committee, and was the town’s delegate to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission for decades. For 40 years, he was an active member of the West Tisbury Volunteer Fire Department, rising to assistant chief. Though he joked that the department “never lost a foundation,” he took its work and the safety of his colleagues very seriously. He was a first responder at heart, not only as an EMT and firefighter, but as the person family and friends turned to for comfort, help, and advice in any emergency, personal or community. Concerned about preserving the human fabric of the Island, John worked for affordable housing, served for many years as president and board member of Island Elderly Housing, and was president and a longtime board member of Vineyard House, the Island’s sober living community.
John’s love of music, particularly the blues, began at an early age. As a teenager, when not taking apart cars, he headed a garage band, playing lead and rhythm guitar, harmonica, and occasionally keyboards. While at Cornell, he performed with a four-man band called the Eight Balls, which toured Northern New York State and earned him his college expenses. On the Vineyard, he played pickup with a great many local musicians, including Johnny Hoy, Maynard Sylva, and the Stragglers. Fishing, either in the Derby or wetting a line from shore, or his boat the Loan Shark, was a passion in his younger years.
John is survived by his wife, Shakti Reynolds; stepdaughter Lauren McDowell Santos and her husband Lou and son Colton Ka’eo of Kailua, Hawaii; stepson Ross McDowell and his wife Sophia and their son Reno of Encinitas, Calif. He is also survived by his four siblings, Alice Early (Larry Hepler) of Chilmark, Elizabeth Early Sheehan (John) of Kerrville, Texas, Thomas Early (Connie) of Cedaredge, Colo., and Margaret Early and her sons Charles and Henderson Sykes of Lincoln. He leaves behind his cousins Anne Burns (Kevin) of Greenwich, Conn., Chas deGeofroy (Sarah Kuh) of Chilmark, and Louis deGeofroy (Karen Overtoom) of West Tisbury and their children, and cousins Stephen Shiels (Kathleen) of Fargo, N.D., and Michael Shiels of Naples, Fla. He was predeceased by his parents Virginia (Flannery) and Thomas G. Early of West Tisbury. His first wife was Dianne Powers of West Tisbury.
Anyone wishing to continue John’s legacy of community support may make a donation in his memory to Vineyard House, or Island Elderly Housing. The community will be invited to celebrate John’s life at a future time.