Chris Perry Column: Me And The Man From Nantucket

Chris Perry •

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Toni and Bill Struncis.

It’s an all too familiar theme…Another popular Nantucket couple decides to pull up roots and leave the island.

What used to be a unique phenomenon on Nantucket has now become commonplace. Sadly, we have all heard it before. But now, it seems we have become numb to the sense of loss.

The loss of a community member. The loss of a neighbor. The loss of a business associate.

But this time, the loss is personal.

Bill and Toni Struncis have thrown in the towel. Bill, who came to Nantucket in the early 80’s and started a successful painting business, sensed that “the end was near a few years ago.”

Toni, who has been a loyal and dedicated family business manager for Alan Bell, has successfully navigated Island Variety for over 23 years. But reluctantly, she offered, “ever since the pandemic, it just hasn’t been the same. Customers are different. It just isn’t fun anymore. I never thought I would want to leave but we do.”

Later today, the transfer of ownership of Island Variety will go through. Following that, the sale of Bill and Toni’s house off South Shore Road will go to record tomorrow. In effect, that will close the Nantucket book on Bill and Toni Struncis and it hurts.

Their first chapter actually started almost 40 years ago. Initially, Bill came to Nantucket in the early 80’s to paint houses. He left briefly for Pennsylvania but returned a few years later to work with Dave Hardy at the Nesbit Inn. After going out on his own, Bill lived and worked for Helen Trebby at The Landmark House as their resident caretaker. However, Bill’s high-water mark in his early days was meeting Toni Eldridge in 1999 at the Nantucket Paddle Club which was located off Polpis Road at the time.

“Our first date was dinner at A.K. Diamonds,” recalled Toni. “We had a great time. But even then, Bill talked a lot about retirement. It’s so ironic that here we are today both ‘retiring’ away from Nantucket.”

Toni went on: “What I remember from that night was not all the topics of conversation or the food. Bill was a perfect gentleman. But at the end of the night, he moved closer to say goodnight. The only problem was that Bill called me ‘Terri.’ Bill was so nervous that he did not even know that he called me the wrong name. No matter, it did not slow him down. We got married in 2002.”

Appropriately, I met Bill at the Nantucket Paddle Club too. We became fast friends despite the fact he was a huge Yankees fan. Many of us “older guard” such as Hal Herrick, Steve Sullivan, Vaughn Machado, Bill Congdon, Alan Bell, Chick Walsh, Brett Morneau, John Trebby, Luke Thornewill, Tom Kelly, John Brescher and Marsh Chambers all developed a healthy bond through paddle and tennis. Occasionally spirited but never contentious, all of us who are still here today must sadly admit that we are losing “another one” to the lure of off-island bliss.

As a charter member of the “Axis of Evil,” Bill sandwiched in a handful of club championships and several pizza and paddle crowns along with two back surgeries, a hernia, knee surgery and rotator cuff surgery over a 20-year reign on the courts. Nevertheless, whether he was my partner or on the other side of the net, what I am going to miss most will be Bill’s legendary trash talking that took a backseat to no one.

If you ask his granddaughter, Paisley, she’ll affectionately tell you: “He’s not Grampy - he’s Champy”. If you ask Agnus, she’ll tell you that he’s undefeated in 12 states, three foreign countries and two Commonwealths. If you ask anyone who has been a victim of his left-handed serve, they’ll roll their eyes in frustration. But if you ask Bill about anyone trying a drop shot on him, he’ll tell you: “Not in my house."

Presently, Bill is delivering a second load of furniture bound for Leland, NC and Brunswick Forrest. Once on site, Bill will be repainting the kitchen cabinets in their new house while Toni stays on Nantucket to help with the transition.

“I will be on-island for about two more weeks,” pledged Island Variety’s popular manager. “My 50th birthday is May 15th and our anniversary is the 18th and I really want to be with Bill in North Carolina for both,” she added in a sentimental voice.

Toni went on: “This whole process has been bittersweet. On the one hand, for over 20 years, I have watched so many Nantucket children grow up. Now, they are driving to the store with their own kids. I love to see that.

“But on the other hand, there have been some emotional times during this process,” Toni said from the heart. “Recently, Bill and I were packing up and I found a copy of my mom’s (Bonnie Bell) obituary. She just loved life especially family, paddle tennis and tennis. That’s what initially brought Bill and I together. She died unexpectedly on April 5, 2006.

“Bill and I have a lot to look forward to,” Toni quickly added. “We are moving to the same town as our good friends, Chad and Nicole Harnishfeger. Everyone knows them from Nantucket, and now they will be just down the road.

“I remember that I was so mad at Chad and Nicole when they left. Now, we are leaving too.”

Personally, I can’t say that I am mad - more disappointed, sad and frustrated than anything - but I now know how Toni felt back then. Once people find out about Bill and Toni leaving, I bet they will feel the same way too.

As Linda Davis once said to me, “We are losing the people that represent the fabric that make up the quilt we call Nantucket.”

It makes you wonder: Who will be next?

You can’t find a more honest, loyal and gregarious person than Bill Struncis. I am proud to say that he is one of my best friends. There are so many funny stories over the years - similar stories that I am sure a lot of you have about your best friend(s). But if I recall one brief vignette that sums up Bill - mentions Nantucket - and shows his humility and sincerity towards life, it is a quick story about a trip to New Jersey a few years ago.

Bill was involved in a traffic accident that required a court appearance. Nothing malicious or salacious but a true car “accident” where, thankfully, no one was injured. He could have hired an attorney or negotiated himself out of the situation in advance but he felt an obligation to attend and appear in court in person.

Knowing he wasn’t wild about the trek back to New Jersey, I offered to drive him down thinking we could easily swing by Mohegan Sun on the way back. We arrived in New Jersey the night before the court session, and if you know Bill, that meant a good night’s sleep with a fully pressed outfit laid out in advance for him in the morning.

Once in court, we surveyed the setting and took a seat. It was obvious that it was going to be a busy day for the judge who was presiding over a packed court. He was a middle-aged man - a good listener and clearly well-versed in the law as he deftly moved through the docket like Judge Wapner.

When Bill’s case number came up, the Judge seriously requested: “Mr. Struncis - please stand up.”

Immediately, Bill did so and he stood at attention like a guard for Her Majesty’s Royal Palace.

The judge read over the report in silence and seemed to be getting an initial take on the matter when he looked up and said with a slight grin: “Mr. Struncis, are you the Man from Nantucket?”

Bill wasted no time. At full attention, he immediately shot back, “Yes, I am, sir…I am the Man from Nantucket.”

There was a brief pause and then the judge could not contain himself and he started to laugh.

Sitting next to Bill, I couldn’t believe what I just heard and I started to chuckle too.

But Bill, he never flinched - stoic, sincere, serious, proud, respectful and ready to face his punishment even if it meant the guillotine.

Once composed, the judge simply dismissed the case with a small fine and heartfelt thanks to Mr. Struncis for attending. To this day, I am not sure Bill knew what he really said or what happened in court. But for a brief moment and in a serious setting, Bill spontaneously interjected some naive humor into the equation that even the judge found amusing.

This world needs more innocent humor. This world needs more people like Bill Struncis.

If you are wondering, we did stop at Mohegan Sun on the way back. Bill headed to the poker tables and I bounced over and split time between craps and blackjack. But it wasn’t long before we decided to head back to Nantucket.

Just two good friends driving home: Me and the Man from Nantucket.

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