Nantucket Remembers A Favorite Visitor: Jimmy Buffett

Jason Graziadei and David Creed •

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The Palm Beach Post/Zuma Press

Jimmy Buffett’s music embodied escapism and the joys of laid-back, island living. And when Buffett himself wanted to escape and enjoy some of the very things he sang about, he often came to Nantucket.

As the news of the legendary singer-songwriter’s death began to spread late last Friday and Saturday morning, Nantucket residents fondly remembered Buffett’s time on the island, the friendships he forged here, and the memorable moments he created.

As Nantucket charter boat captain Jay Starr put it Saturday after Buffett’s passing: “The island needed 100 more of these guys. Low key, and a happy dude.”

And, it seemed, there were so many stories of Buffett’s adventures on Nantucket.

Some island residents joined him on his many fishing trips in Nantucket waters, hunting for stripers or tuna. Others recalled their memories of getting to see Buffett drop in at The Chicken Box for an impromptu performance or singing karaoke with him at Cap’n Tobey’s. For some, it was a chance encounter at the Club Car, where Buffett could often be found with the late Joe Pantorno, his close friend and the longtime owner of the downtown restaurant.

Buffett loved Nantucket, his friends here said, not only for the island living and getting to pursue some of his favorite pastimes, but also because he could fly relatively under the radar and not feel the stardom that came with the billion-dollar empire he had created.

“I think he had a certain amount of anonymity here,” said another close friend, Capt. Tom Mleczko. “Sure people would recognize him here, but in places like Key West, he stepped out on the street and he’d be mobbed. He had a lot of friends out here who loved seeing him and being with him but didn’t advertise that fact. They let him be Jimmy and it wasn’t about the fame. The people on Nantucket sort of understood that was why he was here - the anonymity - they respected that, and they let him have it.”

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Capt. Tom Mleczko and Buffett fishing the Tuckernuck flats in the early 1990s.

Mleczko - one of the many local anglers who knew Buffett - first met him in the early 1990s, just as Mleczko was starting to expand his charter fishing business on the island. It started with a phone call out of the blue.

“My wife handed it to me and said ‘It’s for you.’ The guy on the other end says ‘Captain, this is Jimmy. Jimmy Buffett’,” Mleczko recalled. “I looked at the phone and said which one of my good buddies is pulling my leg? He said ‘I want you to take me up to Tuckernuck and fish in the sand - I heard there’s some good fish up there.’ I said ‘OK, when do you want to do it?’ And he said ‘How about tomorrow’?”

They made a plan to meet at Old North Wharf, and Mleczko showed up the next morning still not quite believing Buffett would be there to me him. But sure enough, there he was.

“Lo and behold, Jimmy Buffett jumps on my boat,” Mleczko said. “He said ‘Hi Captain, I’m Jimmy Buffett’ and shook my hand. I thought holy shit!”

The first trip was a rough one as the two men headed out to Tuckernuck in a Whaler Mleczko had borrowed from a friend. A 25-knot wind out of the northwest left them soaked, but they made it. Buffett caught a fish on the first cast and decided to call it a day.

“He turned to me and said ‘Thank you, Captain, that’s all I wanted to do, let’s go home.’ One fish. We were soaking wet, like drowned rats. He got out of the boat, shook my hand, and off he went. I got home and said to (Mleczko’s wife) Bambi, ‘Yeah it was Jimmy. He was everything everyone said: wonderful, full of energy, positive, excited, loving the adventure. But he’ll never fish with me again.”

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Buffett with a 500-pound tuna caught off Nantucket in September 2018.

But of course, Buffett did. It was the start of a decades-long friendship - not just between Tom Mleczko and Buffett, but the entire family. And it centered around their love of fishing. There was just one problem - one that Buffett quickly remedied.

“Two or three days later, he called and said “Captain, I absolutely loved fishing with you. I love Tuckernuck and Nantucket, but your boat sucks.’ I laughed and said ‘Jimmy send me a good boat, then.’ And ‘he said maybe I will. I’ll be back a lot and we’re going to fish a lot together.”

A few weeks went by and Mleczko got an unexpected knock on the door. It was a man delivering a brand new, 21-foot flats boat that was perfect for fishing the shoals off Tuckernuck, compliments of Jimmy Buffett. Over the next few years during the season, Mleczko would fish on a regular basis with Buffett and Pantorno.

“The three of us learned this together, to fish the flats,” he said. “We enjoyed being together. At that stage of our friendship, it was one we both learned so much benign out there together. It was a great experience.”

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Buffett's sea plane crash on the front page of The Inquirer and Mirror, Sept. 1994.

That routine - and Buffett’s cherished anonymity on the island - was briefly interrupted in late August of 1994 when he crashed his Grumman G-44 Widgeon seaplane into Madaket Harbor shortly after taking off. Buffett had been fishing with Pantorno and Mleczko for six hours that day, but when they returned to Madaket Harbor, they noticed the aircraft was slightly tilted. One of its pontoons had filled with water but, Buffett said, it was an easy fix. They drained the pontoon, got the plane level, and said their goodbyes.

Pantorno and Mleczko watched in shock and horror as the plane nosedived out of the sky after reaching an altitude of 50 to 60 feet in the air, and came to a stop upside in the water.

“Joe and I looked at each other, it was surreal,” Mleczko recalled. “We whipped over there and we could see that he was in the cockpit, conscious. We broke open the door and pulled him onto the boat. My recollection was he just passed right out in shock. I called the Coast Guard, ordered an ambulance, and told them what happened.”

By the time they got Buffett to the Walter Barrett Pier at F Street in Madaket, word of the crash had already spread around the island, and Mleczko said there as already about 200 people waiting at the pier to catch a glimpse of the legendary singer.

“Some reporter stuck a camera in his face, and I remember I kicked it and said ‘Get out of here’!” Mleczko recalled.

Former Massachusetts State Trooper Jim Ellis shared his memory of what happened next.

“We brought him to the (North Liberty Street) barracks right after he was brought in to avoid all the media,” Ellis said. “He sat in the office and my oldest daughter Kaitlyn, 6, snuck in and he picked her up and put her on his lap. He was on the phone talking with his family and friends rubbing her back. Next thing she is passed out on his lap and he is still rubbing her back. I scooped her up later and apologized. He looked at me and said ‘She made me relax and think of my family as she was on my lap. All good, thanks.”

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Buffett on stage at The Chicken Box in 2001. Photo courtesy of Sarah LeBlanc Blosat

Perhaps less shocking, but likely just as memorable, were Buffett's impromptu appearances at The Chicken Box. The first time was back in 1996 when Buffett, after a day of fishing and a meal at the Club Car, told the crew at the Box that he might stop by.

Shortly after he arrived, Buffett took the stage with local band Mary Jane and the Smoking Section for its second set.

“People were crawling in the windows trying to get in,” Chicken Box co-owner Packy Norton recalled. “We closed the doors and it was mayhem. But he was so gracious, and he took pics with everyone.”

In later years, Buffett took the stage at the Box a few more times, including one sit-in with local band E-Cliff and the Swingdogs - a group of musicians that Buffett would play with on numerous occasions, both on-island and off. Norton said they played “Brown-Eyed Girl” and a few Bob Marley tunes that night at the Box.

Those sit-ins at the Box left an impression, not only on those who were lucky enough to be in attendance but on Buffett himself. Norton recalled how when Buffett would play large venues like Fenway Park or the Xfinity Center in Mansfield, Mass., he would weave The Chicken Box into the lyrics of “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.”

“And every time he’d do that my phone would start blowing up with texts,” Norton said.

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Buffett and Chicken Box co-owner Packy Norton.

The appearances at the venue on Dave Street became something of a legend, and so in subsequent years every time Buffett was seen on the island or his boat was spotted in the harbor, people would flock to The Chicken Box in anticipation that he might decide to sit-in with the band playing that night.

“People ask me 15 to 20 times per summer, ‘Is Buffett coming this summer’?” Norton said with a laugh. “But he could not have been any nicer. Every time I ran into him anywhere, he’d remember me: ‘Packy what’s up? How’s the Box?’ He was always so gracious. He loved that he knew people here, and Nantucket is the kind of place that won’t hound people. They know how to be around him.”

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Buffett singing karaoke at Cap'n Tobey's in 2005. Photo courtesy of Barret Burlage.

For many others on Nantucket - including Ron Oldham and Patti Kennedy - the relationship with Buffett was similarly close and personal. Oldham and Kennedy got married 22 years ago, and if you asked Buffett about them tying the knot, he would have taken all of the credit.

Oldham’s and Kennedy have run The Downyflake restaurant since 2014. Before that, Oldham was the chef at the Rope Walk (now Cru) for 13 seasons. He also notably opened the first-ever Margaritaville for Buffett in the 1980s down in Key West.

In the mid-1990s, Oldham was working at the Westender (now Millie’s) seasonally. During one of his lunch shifts, Buffett and Pantorno stopped in for a bite. It was his first introduction to Pantorno – a connection that would later lead to him and Kennedy meeting one another.

A few years later, Oldham stopped into a small bar in Florida, which just so happened to be right next to Buffett’s studio. There were just three or so people at the bar, but one of them happened to be Pantorno.

“All of a sudden I looked over and Joe just happened to sit next to me,” Oldham said. “We both look at each other and we’re like 'We know each other, right?' It eventually clicked it was from Nantucket. So he goes ‘How come I haven't seen you up (on Nantucket)’ and I told him after I left the Westender I decided to stay down in Key West. Then he asked me what I was doing at that bar because Buffett's studio is right next to the bar. Joe was waiting for him to get done with his recording. And so we start talking he goes ‘If you are ever interested in coming back up to Nantucket, here’s my card. Send a resume.’ One thing led to another.”

Pantorno owned the Rope Walk, and Oldham eventually took him up on his offer. He applied to be the new chef, and the restaurant’s manager just so happened to be Kennedy (a position she held for 21 years). Kennedy and Pantorno had been holding out hope for a different chef they knew of to fill the position but with opening day being just 10 days away Kennedy, begrudgingly, gave in and hired Oldham at the risk of losing him. The rest was history.

“Buffett always said if it wasn’t for him, none of this ever would have happened and we never would have met,” Kennedy said laughing. “Ron gets hired and we were married one year later.”

Kennedy also recalled Buffett telling her the story of how his hit single Margaritaville came to be.

“According to what I've been told, by Buffett actually, was that he had been up in Miami working one day and was driving back to Key West when suddenly he found himself in a big traffic jam,” Kennedy explained. “If there's a major traffic jam going up and down in the Keys, you might as well just pull over because you're not going anywhere. So there was a huge accident, he pulled over, and he had been up working and partying on his way back to Key West and so he sat on the side of the road and wrote that song.”

Kennedy and Oldham continued to have a relationship with Buffett over the years. They said the last time they saw him was about two years ago down in Key West at Louie’s Backyard.

“It was the middle of the wintertime. If it gets the least bit cold down in the Keys people from the north take the excuse to bring out all of their northern clothes,” Kennedy said. “We had just got to Florida from up here, so it didn't seem like anything bad to us. We thought it was a beautiful evening. So we are sitting at a bar, and I have a nickname on Nantucket from years and years ago. It's Paté, and some people only know me as that. There's only like three people at the bar when we sat down.

“We're talking, and I recognize the guy on the other side of the bar from when I was down there and he's kind of waving so I wave back at him and all of a sudden this guy yells across the bar 'Paté! Ron!’ We were looking at each other because he had a big flannel shirt on, a huge jacket, stocking cap all the way down. Then Ron looked and was like wait a minute that's Buffett.”

“That was the last time we saw him,” Kennedy said. “Ever since Joe passed away, I'm not sure if he had ever come back again to Nantucket.”

Kennedy spoke very highly of Buffett and the person he was.

“He was a very warm person. He was a very funny person and a really hardworking person even if people don’t think that of him. He was very driven and passionate. He was such a great environmentalist. He was a great husband and father from what I could tell. I loved his children. He was a real smart businessman and he always surrounded himself with great people, a great team.”

Kennedy worked for Buffett for about six weeks managing concessions in Coconut Groove where he was producing a musical called “Don’t Stop The Carnival” based on Herman Wouk’s 1965 novel. She managed the concessions with Pantorno.

“I remember being just so impressed with him,” she said. “I had known him from coming into RopeWalk, coming into Club Car. He was always very funny and very warm – but what a businessman. The team was amazing. You needed to be there on time, work hard, everyone was always very nice, and let me tell you, there was always a lot of partying after work.”

“It is a massive loss,” Kennedy said.

Island fisherman and restaurateur Jonas Baker, who got to know Buffett through Capt. Bob DeCosta and running the Slip 14 restaurant, said the singer won't soon be forgotten by many on Nantucket.

"He was an amazing human being, always had a smile and would take the time to say hello and take a picture with people," Baker said. "He embraced the true meaning of 'see the good side.' Meaning, life is a gift, empower people and help them grow to become better people. Mr. B always had the vibe of today is a great day to be alive. Take advantage of it, suck it up and ride the wave. Our friendship helped me grow as a person and for that I thank him."

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