People Who Make a Difference -Winter 2018
The 11 people we have chosen in 2018 as People who Make a Difference for their assortment of talents and gifts they give back to their community are Carlos Castrello, Mary Haft, Lulie and Gordon Gund, David Gray, Snooky Eldridge, Brenda Johnson, Scott Leonard, Jim Pignato and Cecelia and Seward Johnson.
Carlos Castrello has seen the human toll left in the wake of Hurricane Maria, even a year after the wind and rain stopped. No jobs. No electricity. No water. No hope. It is the last one that threatened to break his heart.
“Puerto Rico was already in dire straits economically, but we always had hope,” he said. “Puerto Ricans are happy people by nature. But now the saddest thing is everybody is looking for hope. The biggest fear is it will take the Puerto Rican-ness out of Puerto Rico. This hurricane just took the soul away from the island.”
Castrello grew up about 15 miles from the capital city of San Juan, in a town called Bayamon. He came to know Nantucket via his service with the U.S. Coast Guard, when he was stationed on the last Nantucket lightship. He now is the assistant manager at the Nantucket Hotel.
Watching the aftermath of the hurricane, talking to friends from home, he knew he had to try to do something to make things just a little bit better. Maybe return a small bit of hope.
His first thought was that maybe 100 skilled workers from Nantucket – carpenters, electricians and plumbers – could rebuild a handful of buildings in some small town. Logistics on the ground in Puerto Rico made that idea impossible.
He got together with Tom McCann, founder of Nantucket Holidays For Heroes, whose work with military veterans and their families began with the same feeling of needing to do something, anything, to make things just a little better.
They put together Nantucket Cares: Small Island, Big Heart, to help fund a relief effort. McCann told him the best way to begin was to go there and talk to people face-to-face, to see exactly what could be done.
After a recent trip to Puerto Rico, Castrello said the focus will now be on helping schools.
“They are faced with no money for infrastructure improvements or extracurricular activities,” he said. “We talked to the secretary of education and she said there is government money coming for books and school supplies, but what they do not have is funding for things like the arts, theater, music and sports.”
The goal now is not only to donate computers, but to help get a computer room build, to donate arts supplies and sports equipment but also get a ball field rebuilt. But often, it is the small things that make a difference. Nantucket Cares was able to donate 30 rotating fans to schools.
“Schools don’t have air-conditioning anymore, and it was mind-boggling to see the kids sitting there in that heat and trying to concentrate,” Castrello said.
He would like to see a relationship grow between these schools and Nantucket.
“We don’t want to do just one thing and leave,” he said. “We can’t, to have a long-lasting mission with a school or a town. The idea is that every couple of years we can refine the mission. I truly believe we now have our goal set in front of us and it’s a doable goal. Little by little we can make a difference.”
Snooky Eldridge doesn’t know what it’s like to be idle. Sitting around just isn’t in his DNA.
At 82, the lifelong Sconset resident stays active as a licensed plumber, caretaker in many respects for the nearly 200-year-old Methodist church and retired volunteer firefighter who keeps an eye on the Sconset fire station after many years of service there.
Every Christmas he makes sure the exterior is decorated to the delight of village residents and his granddaughter Elizabeth, a college student who is following in his footsteps and her father’s as a volunteer firefighter.
Snooky is one of those island folks who is a giver, always thinking quietly of how he can help out, or keeping an ear open and doing what needs to be done without seeking credit, and in fact shying away from it when it comes his way.
When the Methodist church, which he and his late wife Myrt were married in many years ago, needed a new stove to replace the 60-year-old gas behemoth that was leaking, a new appliance suddenly appeared and the old stove was mysteriously hauled away. Many other repairs and updates to that building have come out of the blue: all courtesy of Snooky’s time, talents and treasure.
Snooky learned the can-do attitude growing up in Sconset with his brother Gerry. He vividly remembers his early years of education in Sconset’s one-room schoolhouse where one’s seating assignment, by row, signified what grade you were in.
Many of his skills were learned initially as a student at the old Coffin School on Winter Street under the tutelage of Roy True and Tom McAuley. That was back in the days when island boys took either the college-prep course to go off-island or enrolled in “voke” and learned the tools of their trade right here on-island at the Coffin School, later apprenticing with island tradesmen.
Snooky still lives in Sconset, on Eldridge Lane, long after many other Sconseters moved into town. He keeps an eye on the village, especially in the winter when the summer residents are away and there are few lights shining in the windows on a cold winter night. In many ways he keeps the watch for this special spot on Nantucket, a human lighthouse of sorts.
Snooky is old-school Nantucket, old-school Sconset and a treasure to us all.
Gordon and Lulie Gund
There came a day when Gordon Gund began to see the world as if through a rolled-up paper tube. Then as if through a straw. Then it was dark. It only took six months.
He could see when he first met Lulie, the woman who would become his wife. He could see when their first son was born. But by the time their second son was born, things had changed.
“My day vision went in six months,” Gund, now 78, said. “The most frustrating part was that by the time I had lost it, our second son Zachary was born, I got to scan his face when he was first born and then a week or two later I couldn’t see him at all.”
The disease is called retinitis pigmentosa. It affects the rods and cones, the cells in your eyes that together allow you to see. It is hereditary.
Through it all, Lulie made sure her husband, especially now that he was blind, kept focused on what was important. He continued to run Gund Investment Corporation. He bought an ownership stake in the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Together they raised their sons.
“One of the frustrations for me was it meant I had to deal with life in a different way than I expected to and we both had to go through that, as partners and as parents,” he said. “She never allowed me to wring my hands and get desperate about it. She just said we’re going to make it work and we’ll figure it out.”
Fifty years later, they still figure out life together.
“We do what we do together and have right along,” he said.
In 1971, they began a nonprofit group called Foundation Fighting Blindness.
“In 1969, we put a man on the moon, and we thought with that technology for sure we’d be able to find answers for these diseases, if we really put our minds to it,” Gund said. “So, we started this foundation and bit by bit we grew it and built it up as a fundraising vehicle and a research vehicle.”
Advances in the science behind gene therapy, which inserts a gene into a patient’s cells instead of using drugs or surgery, have provided a pathway to challenging the disease. When the treatment works, mostly in younger patients, it is like turning on a light switch, Gund said.
“We are very excited about the results that have been realized over the last few years,” he said. “These young patients can see very well, not everything, but they are playing baseball, riding bikes, able to see the blackboard in school, so it’s very exciting.”
There are 40 Foundation Fighting Blindness chapters in the United States, and 32 affiliated chapters worldwide. Gund gives the credit to this large network of scientists and volunteers.
“It’s the power of a lot of people really caring and being able to focus on something,” he said. “We’re very fortunate to be a part of it. Courage to me is a successful and sustained focus. I’m very excited that it’s happened during our lifetimes.”
It was Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. A nor’easter with wind gusts of 80 mph was pummeling the island after eight straight days of temperatures in the teens and single digits. It was a day sewer director David Gray never wants to relive.
At 8:14 a.m. police responded to a call downtown of a burst pipe, and within minutes, Gray was on the scene, as millions of gallons of wastewater surged from a broken sewer main onto South Water Street outside the Sea Street pumping station.
By 10:30, the sewage was coming out of manhole covers.
“The options were either to let thousands of gallons of sewage back up and possibly flood hundreds of homes, or to set up a temporary pump to get the sewage directly into the harbor,” Gray said. “The decision did not come lightly. But I was trying to relieve and prevent a catastrophic health problem for thousands of people.”
At the same time, the pavement on Easy Street started to sink. Gray thought the road might collapse. He and his sewer-department crews worked for three days straight searching for the source of the sewer-main break, securing the area and mitigating the spill as best they could.
“Then, I was ordered by the town manager to go home,” he said. “I wanted to keep at it. It’s just how I’m wired.”
Over those three days, as Gray waited for parts to arrive from the mainland to begin repairs, he and his team diverted 3 million gallons of wastewater from the downtown streets into the harbor through a makeshift screen that filtered out more than 2,500 pounds of debris.
In the weeks that followed, Gray, his team and workers from a private contractor stayed on the scene, cleansing the streets with bleach, removing any liquid from around the underground electrical conduit (which sat right next to the sewer main) and examining the pipe in its entirety – from Sea Street to the Surfside wastewater treatment plant – repairing a number of cracks along the way.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that you can’t anticipate anything and you always have to expect the unexpected,” Gray said.
“That could have been a very simple backup, just some sewage coming out of the manhole. That’s what I anticipated.”
Now, in his third year as sewer director, Gray is prepared for whatever comes his way.
“I really love what I do,” he said. “I live, eat and sleep sewer. Even in the private sector, I always specialized in sewers. I really found my niche.”
Mary Haft has been a bookworm as long as she can remember. As a little girl, books and reading were central to her life.
Haft has taken that love of literature and transformed it into a gift to the island as co-founder and major supporter, with Wendy Hudson, of the Nantucket Book Festival, now in its eighth year.
The festival occurs over four days in mid-June and brings a focus on literature to the island as authors arrive and share their talents and insights into the writing processes in talks, readings and other events that are largely free to the public. This is primarily thanks to the support of Haft and others in the Nantucket Book Foundation, who fund the event and provide advice and input throughout the year.
Nantucket holds a special place in the heart of Haft, a former television producer and author who calls Washington, D.C. home in the off-season and sits on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.
It is that association with PEN/Faulkner that spurred Haft to become more deeply involved with the Nantucket Book Festival by bringing the foundation’s Writers in Schools program into the Nantucket school system six years ago.
“We believe in the power of words to change lives,” she said.
The PEN/Faulkner partnership has allowed students in the elementary, middle and high schools to be introduced to works of contemporary literature by some of the country’s finest children’s and young-adult authors like Jack Gantos, Julie Berry, Jacqueline Woodson, Morowa Yejidé, Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Marita Golden – who worked with ninth-grade honors English classes last spring – who have come into the schools to meet with students and discuss their books.
“This is really a partnership across both our foundation and the teams of teachers, librarians and administrators at the schools who give their time, talent and dedication to make possible a larger world of ideas for our island community,” Haft said.
Name a role, any role, at Nantucket Cottage Hospital. Chances are, nurse Brenda Johnson, who is currently its clinical program director, has performed it in some capacity.
“I’ve done everything from womb to tomb, scrubbing the floors, managing the image department, etc.,” Johnson said. “But that’s what I love most about my job. I’ve been able to have multiple careers inside one organization.”
Johnson’s desire to become a nurse goes back to when she was 12, when she began volunteering at the hospital and helping feed and support the patients. She found role models on the staff who helped develop her love for nursing.
“Goldie Howes was the director of nurses. She was just the most wonderful, caring person. I can see her as a kid coming to my house, with my grandmother knitting, in her white uniform, white stockings, white shoes and radio. Everybody loved her and you just felt safe with her and I wanted to be just like her,” said Johnson, who has been a registered nurse since 1975. In that 43-year span her roles often changed as she moved on to her next challenge, but not her values or what keeps her going year after year.
“The patients have and always will be my top priority,” she said. “As I moved away from the bedside, people would say to me, ‘don’t you miss taking care of the patients?’ But when I step back and think about it, I still am taking care of patients, just in a different kind of way. I may not be listening to their lungs or assessing them personally, but in these other roles I’m in I am working to improve our hospital’s care and make sure we have what we need to give them the best experience possible.”
Johnson describes herself as a people person, someone who loves forming new relationships that can be used as a tool to better the patient’s experience while receiving care.
“I believe that everyone comes into your life for a reason, and that everyone provides some sort of value and that you learn something new from everyone,” Johnson said.
“I like to learn why they worry, why they got to be who they are, the whole package. I like meeting new people and building that trust with my patients that I can then use to help them better trust all of the people who I work with and see my co-workers shine because they are all so smart and fantastic.”
Johnson was assigned to her new role as clinical program director just before the start of the new hospital’s construction, where she’s served as a voice of the patients in its design: a messenger, as she likes to call it. She’s learned new things about her patients and learned new lessons, a consistent trend in her career.
“In this new role the patient is in the center and the driving force of everything I do,” Johnson said. “I’m always paying attention to how the space is designed. I’m always looking at the handrails, the toilet seats and sinks. I look at everything, ask the patient what they think about it, and bring the patient’s voice to the hospital.”
Seward and Cecelia Johnson
Seward and Cecelia Johnson’s commitment to the arts is clearly visible on the island. The Artists Association of Nantucket’s downtown gallery bears their name in recognition of their support over several decades. They are also longtime and avid supporters of Theatre Workshop, producing plays and serving on its artistic advisory board.
Seward is a sculptor whose larger-than-life, super-realist pieces are installed around the world. Cecelia is a writer and poet with a degree in art history, and with her husband a collector and patron of the arts not only on the island but also in New Jersey, where their 42-acre Grounds for Sculpture displays the work of both established and emerging artists indoors and out.
“To me, art is a way to learn about yourself. It’s like a mirror. As you’re looking at the art, you’re looking at part of yourself. It teaches you how to know yourself. It’s the most important gift a person can be given,” Seward said.
While they split time between their farm outside Princeton, N.J. and homes in Key West and Hulbert Avenue on Nantucket, the island is where they feel most at home, and most in touch with their artistic sensibilities.
“Over the years the complexities of Nantucket’s draw became much more multi-faceted than other places I visited, mostly due to its arts community. It generated in each of us the need to find ourselves through the arts in sculpting, writing, painting and theater. It seemed a way of capturing how the magic of Nantucket can feed the soul and stimulate the artist to communicate these feelings to his brethren,” said Seward, who started coming to the island as a child when his father would take the family sailing from Chatham. He met his future wife in the mid1960s while both were waiting at LaGuardia Airport in New York City for a flight to the island.
In their early years together, their “dates” would often begin with dinner at The Club Car or The Opera House, and end at the long-gone Kenneth Taylor Gallery.
“We came to realize that Nantucket attracted exceptionally talented painters and craftsmen who for the most part lived quiet lives. This
appealed to us, for so did we. Appreciating their art became a ritual for Seward and me,” Cecelia said.
“At the Kenneth Taylor Gallery there was only a single person at the desk, and there was no pressure to buy anything. But sure enough,
we would come back with what we considered a prize possession under our arm. Seward and I treasured these evenings and we treasured the art.”
As artists themselves, they realize the importance of artists benefiting to the highest degree possible from the sale of their work. To that end they created an endowment at the Artists Association that allows artists to keep 65 percent of the sales of their work at the Cecelia Joyce & Seward Johnson Gallery.
“We realized that a gallery, such as the Kenneth Taylor, or now the Artists Association, was an exception that made it possible for the artist to benefit in a more lucrative way from the sale. We wanted to help keep this tradition alive, thus the many annual parties on our lawn (in support of the Artists Association), which we knew was for an important cause. We also love the theater and would go to Theatre Workshop as often as we could. Seldom were we disappointed with the acting or the plays. It seemed natural for us to want to encourage and contribute to their sustainability as much as we could,” Cecelia said.
“We loved the contrast of the arts and nature, yet because we were in Nantucket, we saw them as one. This atmosphere of what I might call the deep humanity that is expressed in arts, also carried on to our personal lives. Seward continued to make sculptures and create the Grounds for Sculpture in New Jersey and I continued to create and produce various projects.”
Scott Leonard’s dream is that the Marine Mammal Alliance of Nantucket will some day be located in a marine-mammal rehabilitation center, instead of operating out of the back of his pickup truck. It would be a place where the oceanic animals that often wash up on the shores of the island can be brought for treatment or properly euthanized.
“The dream would be to have 10 paid staff,” he said. “We are this epicenter of amazing biodiversity in the ocean and we have no place to send an ill animal.”
Leonard is CEO of the Marine Mammal Alliance, and stranding coordinator for Marine Mammal Rescue of Nantucket.
Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gave Nantucket’s marinemammal rescue team official status under federal regulations. One of the first things Leonard did, after receiving that status, was convince his friend Troy Platt to spend a week on-island teaching volunteers the basic skills that will allow them to be part of rescue efforts.
Platt is the safety director at the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, N.J.
“We have 38 trained volunteers now,” Leonard said. “We’re trying to put this organization together, because we need to be a team. This was the first training we’ve had. This is the very basic level, but it allows them to approach a marine mammal, to take photographs of live animals and measure and get level-A data off of dead animals. A member of the public, because of federal law, cannot approach a marine mammal, live or dead.”
Leonard grew up in northern California, wanting to follow in the footsteps of oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. He majored in oceanography for a few years at Humboldt State University. Eventually, he made his way to Cape Cod, working as an ocean lifeguard and a ranger for the National Park Service there.
Not long after he came to Nantucket, Leonard met Jean Rioux, founder of the Marine Mammal Conservation Program. She put together the Marine Mammal Stranding Team in response to the stranding of 13 pilot whales in 1982.
He immediately volunteered. That was 20 years ago. In 2009, Rioux asked him to take over the program.
“I still am a volunteer,” he said. “We are trying to raise, through grants and donations, enough money to fund the organization and its
work. If at some time we have enough money to pay a staff that would be great.”
Whatever happens, Leonard will be out there, on the beach spreading information through conversations, working with police dispatchers
to let people concerned about a marine mammal on the beach call him at (833) 667-6626.
“Our federal stranding agreement requires that we educate,” he said. “I go to the schools and educate kids and talk to people on the
beach. I work with the town, the police, the harbormaster and the lifeguards.”
A marine-mammal rehabilitation facility on-island, he said, would also have both educational and research elements.
“We are one of the busiest marine-mammal areas in the U.S., because of gray seals and harbor seals,” he said. “We may have close to
10,000 gray seals here in the height of winter. That’s pretty amazing. We should be contributing to science.”
Each August at Jetties Beach, Jim Pignato and Jill Roethke organize the annual Swim Across America-Nantucket fundraiser for local cancer treatment and patient care. In the five years since it started, Swim Across America has raised close to $2 million for Nantucket Cottage Hospital’s oncology department & Palliative and Supportive Care of Nantucket.
“It takes many hands to do it. Jill and I are the face of it, but there are a lot of people behind the scenes who make this thing work,” Pignato said, estimating that there are nearly 100 volunteers at the beach on swim day.
“There is a special feel the day of. There is a lot of emotion. It’s a swim, not a race, so people can really take the time and use it to reflect and think about those loved ones and why we’re doing this.”
This year 312 swimmers raised a total of $425,000, both record totals for the growing event. As a result, the nurse practitioner position at the hospital’s oncology center has gone from part-time to five days a week and oncologists are able to visit the island more often, sparing Nantucket cancer patients from constantly having to travel off-island for treatment.
Swimming is a way for Pignato to effect change, whether raising money or teaching and coaching kids. He has been Nantucket High School’s varsity swimming coach for the last 15 years, and is also the Nantucket Community Pool’s aquatics director. This spring he was honored as the 2018 Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association Girls Swimming & Diving Coach of the Year. It was the first time a coach from Nantucket High School had ever won the statewide award.
“It’s truly humbling and a great honor,” Pignato said. “Building a program takes time, especially out here where you have a very finite group. You have to cultivate and grow every swimmer. You’re not getting this influx from other towns and clubs in the area.”
During Pignato’s tenure, the girls have only had two losing seasons, and since 2010, have been on an absolute tear. After three straight second-place finishes in the Bay Colony Conference Championships, the Whalers finally got over the hump in the 2015-16 season, picking up their first of three straight BCC championships and counting.
The boys, on the other hand, captured Nantucket’s first BCC title in 2012-13 and have won it every year since, except for 2013-14, when they finished second. Pignato’s role as aquatics director and his long tenure mean he has had the opportunity to coach many of his
future varsity swimmers when they were just learning the ropes.
“When (current senior co-captain) Emma Pierce was in maybe third or fourth grade, I’m in the water with her and I’m teaching her
how to do a flip turn,” Pignato said. “I think building those relations early is a contributing factor to the success of the program now. A lot of these kids, I taught them to swim.”