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Vineyard’s days as haven for Obamas near an end

OAK BLUFFS — Alonzo White caught a glimpse once, several years ago, and words failed him.

He couldn’t even muster a “Hello,” he recalled — let alone a “Mr. President!”

Instead, the Washington, D.C., vacationer recalled, what came out was more like “Muh-muh-ahh-um-buhmuh!”

So it has gone nearly every summer on the Vineyard, where the first family has vacationed for seven of the eight years of President Obama’s two terms. Now, as his final vacation from the Oval Office draws to a close, an island that has been the preferred playground for presidents as far back as
Ulysses S. Grant is preparing to bid adieu — even as November’s election leaves open the possibility of another first family coming next year.

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Sightings of Obama have become increasingly rare over the years, many on the Vineyard say. He doesn’t pop in at Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven every year like he used to. He spends most sunny days golfing with powerful friends. Spotting him ducking into a restaurant requires tremendous luck, and spying him on the way out takes uncommon patience.

That’s a far cry from how former president Bill Clinton spent his frequent Vineyard vacations: glad-handing his way through crowded main streets all over the island. But on and off the clock, each first family charts their own course, and the Obamas have mostly kept theirs off the map.

Naturally, that relative reticence hasn’t stopped people from trying to find them. On Thursday night, a small crowd gathered across the street from Beach Road restaurant in Vineyard Haven, where the Obamas arrived for dinner a little before 8 p.m. When they finally left after 11, the crowd was still there.

But for some who have spent years on the island, dealing with the massive apparatus that surrounds the leader of the free world is sort of like living near a magnificent drawbridge: You show it off to excited out-of-town friends, and spend the rest of the time trying to avoid its attendant traffic.

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“Is he on the front or the back?” a golfer asked as he unloaded his clubs outside the clubhouse at Farm Neck Golf Club in Oak Bluffs on Thursday. Obama was out golfing with comedian Larry David, former UBS president Robert Wolf, and Jonathan Lavine of Bain Capital, but his fellow duffers were more interested in squeezing in an uninterrupted round on a sunny afternoon.

US President Barack Obama, his brother-in-law Konrad Ng and first lady Michelle Obama waved from the balcony of Gay Head lighthouse on Martha’s Vineyard in 2009.
US President Barack Obama, his brother-in-law Konrad Ng and first lady Michelle Obama waved from the balcony of Gay Head lighthouse on Martha’s Vineyard in 2009. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Presidential vacations can be a sore spot for more political reasons, particularly among voters whose allegiances lie elsewhere. This year, some called for him to cut the trip short to visit flood-ravaged Louisiana.

Obama’s vacations on the Vineyard have been so low-key over the years — he skipped only 2012 as he attended to his reelection campaign — that they have been notable mostly for their interruptions. During a hectic 2015 stay, the president addressed the nation from the island about the protests in Ferguson, Mo.; military strikes in Iraq; and the killing of James Foley. In 2011, he cut his trip short as Hurricane Irene bore down on the Eastern Seaboard. And in 2009, Obama offered a statement on the death of Edward Kennedy from the lawn of a rented home not far from the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port.

Mostly, though, Obama has spent each summer enjoying the seclusion of a series of rented estates, leaving via a motorcade that shuttles him back and forth to the golf course, and then later to dinner with his family.

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At Farm Neck on Thursday, a handful of stragglers — their cars searched by the Secret Service and sniffed by dogs — lingered in the parking lot and craned their necks down the fairways. A retired teacher who has lived on the island year-round for 45 years had come with a friend from Florida who was hoping to lay eyes on POTUS.

“This island is a place where people just go about their business,” said the woman, who gave only her first name, Judy.

Clinton appeared to enjoy strolling through the island’s towns and chatting up whoever happened into his field of vision, but Judy said it has become evident over the years that Obama prefers a more private summer respite. All over the Vineyard, people are seeking the same thing, Judy said — and why should the president deserve any less? “He gets a chance to just be on vacation.”

Edir Kacerja hung a drawing of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at his stall at the Agricultural Society Fair in Tisbury.
Edir Kacerja hung a drawing of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at his stall at the Agricultural Society Fair in Tisbury.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

And so the signs of the presidential presence are relatively few. There’s no trace of him along the rustic Chilmark road where the family rented a home for two weeks, except for a hand-painted sign set out by well-wishers.

At this week’s annual Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society Fair, where oxen pulled heavy sleds and kids raced down giant slides, the only trace of the first family was a caricature of Barack and Michelle hanging prominently at artist Edor Kacerja’s stand (a Donald Trump caricature was displayed somewhat less prominently).

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Kacerja hadn’t drawn the portraits from life, he said — a question he gets often — but he could have: He met the Obamas during his night job waiting tables at Jimmy Seas Pan Pasta in Oak Bluffs. The dishwasher, he said, even got a hug.

For the last time, businesses set out sandwich boards welcoming the Obamas, and maybe hoping to lure in a little looky-loo business.

John’s Fish Market and Sandy’s Fish “N” Chips in Vineyard Haven were doing a brisk “Obama Burger” business this week, selling dozens of the half-pound bacon-cheeseburgers (with an O-shaped onion ring on top).

The sign drew about eight Secret Service agents last year, but not the sandwich’s namesake.

“Someday he’ll wake up and come,” owner Glenn Pachico joked, though those days are running short: The Obamas are scheduled to leave on Sunday.

Whatever happens, Fat Ronnies Burger Bar is ready. Nestled among the tchotchke shops selling “I vacationed with Obama” T-shirts on Circuit Avenue, the cozy joint has a big vinyl banner across the entrance that will work just fine next year, too, should it come to that.

“Welcome First Family,” the sign says, without getting too specific. “Fat Ronnies enjoys your visits.”

President Barack Obama greeted diners after eating lunch with his family and friends at Nancy’s on Martha’s Vineyard in 2010.
President Barack Obama greeted diners after eating lunch with his family and friends at Nancy’s on Martha’s Vineyard in 2010.Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Nestor Ramos can be reached at nestor.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.