I learned about Flint Ranney’s death on the way back to the island on the slow boat. The Eagle is one of several mainstays to island life that bear his name; it made poetic sense that I learned the bad news there. The wind had picked up from the southwest: the fast boats had cancelled and the planes were full. I didn’t know most of the passengers. They came with four or five Marshall’s bags, or boxes from the Stop and Shop, or Toys R Us. They were the unimportant people of Nantucket, who had taken a day trip for some last minute and affordable Christmas shopping. They were coming back with kids and presents from Santa, and white clamshells of rice, beans, and chicken fingers. I re-read the e-mail amid the smells, the noises, and the quiet fear of a rolling boat on a winter sea.
I was not one of Flint’s intimate friends. We passed e-mail back and forth, we chatted on Federal Street, and he let my sons ride his fire truck on the Fourth of July. Many more people can talk about his support of the Daffodil Day parade and his work at Denby’s or at Rotary. I knew Flint best from his years on an incredible school committee.
His name is displayed on the plaque for the new high school as it is also on a plaque down at the elementary school. Resplendent in bow tie and reds, he took on the daunting task of convincing this town that they should spend more money for the public education of its students. He argued for the best and wisest use of money for the building. The recent success of the school owes a small debt of gratitude to the work he did back when the votes needed to come out and the money needed to land on the table. He and several others got the ball moving in the right direction many years ago.
He made more personal commitments to education. In those days when computers were some mainland myth, he had embraced the Apple revolution at Denby. In my first year at the high school, I was handed the Journalism class. In order to actually produce ‘The Spyglass”, I needed to lay it out at Mark White’s house in Nobadeer, then bike the disks to Denby for printing. He allowed me to use his office, his computer, and his valuable time to print a poor product that has slowly gotten better.
Flint and Corky believed in public education. They believed in working to making the system better and in bringing up their children at the public schools on island. This meant that Corky and Flint advocated for the schools from the Friends or from the school committee. They saw an island that would be better for everyone if we had a top flight school system. As a result, both of them fought for better resources, better teachers, and better management. This island and its schools are full of face-slapping inanity; Flint fought the stupid, the petty, and the inane to a standstill. Although they could have, they did not retreat into the world of private schools and off-island academies. Instead, his children stayed here under ferocious watch and an armed howitzer.
Beyond a commitment to their children lay a commitment to the island. From his actions, he did not work for better golf courses, finer restaurants, and private jet parking lots. Instead, most of his work went to the Unimportant People of Nantucket. The Steamship Authority is not the cushiest perch on island, especially when it involves cleaning up the mess in their finances, in their contracts, and in New Bedford. The Eagle, back from its new refit and sounding the Nobska’s horn, had been marked with Flint’s activism. Every passenger on that boat, with its cheaper tickets and comfortable seats, sat in Flint’s shadow. Even the new redesign of the boat, with the first class TV section eliminated, echoes the Wharf Rat motto: “No Seats Reserved for the Mighty.”
Nantucket has bred many with the civic values of Flint Ranney. To say that there aren’t many like him is to shame the folks who work right now to make Nantucket a better place for Nantucketers. The vain, the stupid, and the greedy remain with us forever. Fighting them off requires the quick-witted and the unselfish. You need to be tough, you need to have a sense of humor, and you need to put your shoulder to the wheel and push. I believe many islanders have modeled their public service on the work of Flint and others who went before him. We, the Unimportant People of Nantucket, have been lucky for their work.