How Nat and Melissa Philbrick couple their energy to enrich Nantucket.
They met in the summer of 1974 while teaching sailing at a yacht club on Cape Cod. She was a blond, blue-eyed Cape Codder, and he was a shy “summer kid” from Pittsburgh. They fell in love while sailing on her parent’s 12.5-foot Beetle Cat that summer and then spent their twenties following one another from university to university, he ultimately earning a master’s in literature and she a law degree. They got married, had two children, and eventually made a life together on Nantucket.
Today, Nat and Melissa Philbrick are integral threads in the cultural fabric of the island. As the executive director of ReMain Nantucket, Melissa has helped enrich the island’s historic downtown through projects such as the Nantucket Community Music Center and, most recently, the Nantucket Culinary Center, which has just been completed and will host an open house this Stroll weekend. For his part, Nat has become one of the island’s most distinguished authors, penning twelve books, the most famous of which, In the Heart of the Sea, is making its cinematic debut this December courtesy of director Ron Howard. Since moving to the island nearly thirty years ago, the Philbricks have become synonymous with Nantucket, but the way they ended up here was never part of their plan.
“Nobody thought it was a good idea,” says Nat of their decision to move to the island in 1986. “We’re probably some of the few people who arrived on Nantucket in September having never summered here.” Prior to that fated ferry ride, Melissa was working as a lawyer in Boston, commuting two hours each day from Wrentham, Massachusetts where Nat stayed at home with their two children and wrote for sailing publications.
The young couple didn’t see enough of each other, and the commute was beginning to wear on them. Then one muggy June evening, Melissa’s train home broke down, prompting her to read everything in her briefcase to pass the time, including the want ads in Lawyer’s Weekly. That’s when she spotted an open position at a law firm on Nantucket. “How long could the commute possibly be on an island?” she thought. Melissa put her résumé together that night.
When I was growing up, people on the Cape thought Nantucket was the end of the world,” Melissa says today. “My father thought it was crazy for us to go.” But Melissa quickly “plugged in” to Nantucket life. She was familiar with small town living, and her job in a downtown law firm provided her with an instant community.
Meanwhile, Nat’s transition to island life was not nearly as smooth. “It was much harder for me because I was just with the kids,” he says. “Back then, there were not that many fathers at home with their kids. In fact, I think I was the only one. I basically took ten years off professionally to raise our children. It was the best thing I could have done, but it was not without its personal frustrations.” In fact, Nat grew so professionally restless that he very nearly left the island to pursue a doctorate. Had he done so, his illustrious career as an author may never have come to fruition.
But Nat didn’t leave the island. Instead, he entertained his son and daughter each day with trips to the Atheneum and Maria Mitchell Library. As a result of his daily visits, he was asked to join the boards of both institutions, which gave him footing in the community. More importantly, Nat became intensely fascinated with the history of the island, specifically Melville and the literary legacy of Nantucket. He began publishing academic articles, which soon inspired him to write his first book, Away Off Shore, about the history of Nantucket through the whaling era. And the rest is, quite literally, history. Nat has since published twelve books (four of which became bestsellers) in the genre of historical nonfiction, exploring everything from the tragedy of the Nantucket whaleship Essex to the island’s Wampanoag past to the voyage of the Mayflower to the battle of Bunker Hill.
This fall, Nat put the finishing touches on his twelfth book entitled Valiant Ambition, which tracks the American Revolution through the eyes of George Washington and Benedict Arnold. Valiant Ambition comes as Nat prepares to see his breakout bestseller, In the Heart of the Sea, projected on movie screens around the world. The big budget film starring Chris Hemsworth was originally slated for release this past March, but after early screenings showed the film had Oscar potential, Warner Brothers strategically held back the debut to be more in line with award season. A special community screening of In the Heart of the Sea will take place on Nantucket on December 10th at the Dreamland Theater.
It is undeniable that Nat has attained a level of literary success that is exceedingly rare for writers in this day and age. The Hollywood Reporter named him one of the most powerful authors in show business, a claim not only backed up by Ron Howard, but also by the likes of Ben Affleck, who is slated to direct an adaption of Philbrick’s 2006 book, Bunker Hill. And yet even amidst all the book tours, speaking engagements, and photo shoots, Nat is quick to recall his stay-at-home-dad beginnings and the person who ultimately made his career possible.
“I had a lot of lean years,” he says. “I was at home with the kids. I was not contributing anything financially, but Melissa never, ever said, ‘What the hell are you doing with your life?’ She never lost faith in me.” Instead, when Melissa blew out the candles of her birthday cake each year, she quietly wished that her husband would write a bestseller. “Because he deserved it,” she says.
In 2007, after nearly twenty-five years practicing law, during which time she and a partner ran their own firm on Nantucket, Melissa was looking to reinvent herself. “I was told that you need to be repotted every once and a while,” she says. “New pot. New soil. Let your roots grow. I needed something to refresh me professionally.” Melissa planned to retire after her son Ethan graduated from college and thought she might pursue teaching. Just as she was about to close up her practice, a client came to her with an intriguing proposition. Philanthropist Wendy Schmidt wanted to launch a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and promoting the cultural vitality of downtown Nantucket.
“I recall talking to Melissa on the phone in August 2007 about the idea of what ReMain Nantucket might be,” Wendy Schmidt remembers. “I asked her directly, ‘Am I crazy?’ and she replied, ‘No, I don’t think you’re crazy. I think we can make a difference.’ From that moment on, I knew this brilliant, thoughtful, detailed lawyer would be an extraordinary executive director for a project like ReMain Nantucket. It was something entirely new, and required a creative and collaborative thinker who could help shape this new kind of venture philanthropy with me.”
ReMain offered Melissa a unique position to draw upon her decades of experience in law and real estate. Executing Wendy Schmidt’s vision, Melissa’s downtown projects have taken a number of different forms, from so-called “philanthropic investment” in local businesses like Petticoat Row Bakery to creating community hubs like Mitchell’s Book Corner, the Washington Street bus station, Nantucket Community School, the Music Center, and the Culinary Center. “One of the reasons why we get so excited about 22 Federal, which is the new Culinary Center, is because of the way food brings people together,” Melissa says. “That’s a gift I think Wendy has given to the island, and it creates a reason for people to come to town.” All these spaces are marvels of sustainable design in historic spaces, yielding world-class facilities dedicated to community use. And that’s much to Melissa’s credit. As Wendy Schmidt described, “With the new culinary center coming on line, Melissa has led our team through the complicated business of retrofitting yet another historic building to repurpose it for a new generational use.” ReMain has leased the Culinary Center to Greg and Joy Margolis, and the new facility will offer everything from cooking classes and demonstrations to an in-house caféopen year-round. (Read more about the Culinary Center on page 32, Nosh News.)
As Nat and Melissa Philbrick look toward their fourth decade together on Nantucket, they remain ever committed to the community and the future generations of the island. Despite all they’ve achieved, the couple literally cringes at the faintest mention of being called a local “power couple.” “None of this was calculated,” Nat says. “We’ve been really lucky. I don’t feel like we’ve figured anything out, really. We just love the island.” Melissa agrees, “The island has been tremendously good to us. It’s given us a wonderful place to raise our kids. We’re just people who have been really lucky, and I wish we could give back more.”