Remembering Marston Daley, "The Little Imp of Cape Cod"

Nov 4, 2013

Marston Daley built more than 300 homes in the Eastham, Orleans, Brewster area, in addition to his work with Habitat for Humanity.
Credit Courtesy photo from family

In his retirement, Marston Daley wrote an autobiography called, "The Little Imp of Cape Cod." In it, he said his mom gave him the name Marston because she thought it couldn't be made into a nickname. She was wrong. Marston had lots of nicknames. His mom called him the Little Imp. And he writes that over the years people called him Marst, Jim, Tim, even Bud. His wife Jean, who everyone calls Birdie, said that many people have another name for Marston.

"MacGyver," she said. "Remember that show MacGyver? He used to be able to put together some weird looking stuff and solve all sorts of problems. That was him."

From the Barnstable Senior center, to a military museum in New Hampshire, to a group of Habitat for Humanity homes in Hyannis, Daley liked to step-up and solve people's problems, particularly in his retirement years.

Professionally, he was a builder, and his truck always was carefully stocked with the proper tools -- and the proper clothes -- that a job might require. He built his first cottage in 1932 on a hillside at Cooks Brook in North Eastham. He leaves behind hundreds of houses and cottages that he and his crew of about 18 men constructed over his lifetime.

"There was street after street," Jean remembered, "and he'd say, 'I bought this land and built all these houses here. And they were all Cape Cod style, beautiful homes. People even today that we would meet, 'Oh, I'm so glad you built my house!'"

It's all in Daley's book, which Jean said he wrote when he was in his mid-70s. Marston always needed something to do, she said, and the book was another project.

"He sat down with a typewriter at the table, and I said, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'I'm writing my life. I thought I'd give it a try.' And it turned out to be a very charming little book."

In his biography, Daley writes about learning to build with his dad and uncle. He writes about being drafted while still a student at Orleans High School, and how he went off to war. On the first of the book's 76 pages, Marston writes, "Ride with the Little Imp as he drives 21,000 miles in combat, to get mail from home to their loved ones in fox holes."

"He was a mail clerk for a really long time," Jean said. "And he would put big sacks of mail in the back of a jeep and take off in the night, he didn't even know where these guys were. Tried to find them. And sometimes it was very dangerous. But the guys always looked out for him. They wanted their mail desperately."

Daley spoke easily about the war and his time in General Patton's 8th Armored Division. He visited more than 50 schools in New Hampshire and Massachusetts to talk about his experiences as a mail clerk so far from home.

"He said, 'I always knew when one letter came along that smelled so wonderful, and I knew it was that guys girlfriend who put perfume on.' And there were all of little notes on the flaps, you know, sealed with a kiss. And in those days that was heavy stuff."

In his 70s, Marston Daley decided to write his life story.

After the war, Daley married his high school sweetheart from Eastham, and they started a family. But the marriage didn't last, and either did his second one. Birdie met Daley in 1978, when an injury sent him to work at the Cape Cod 5 Savings Bank as a building inspector and she took a job as a courier.

"It was just part time, and they'd give me a little truckie. So I said, sure," she said. "So that's how I met Marston. He trained me. And I just thought, oh, this guy is so nice. He's very soft spoken, and very interested in things around the Cape. He's an old-time Caper. So we talked about stuff like that."

Together the couple spent more than three decades together, refurbishing old homes, doing volunteer work and performing in choral and dance groups.

At Daley's Memorial Service, three friends -- Ruth Arsenault, Mary Fiset and Barbara Gold -- spoke about the couple's performance skills.

"We sang with him in the Victrola Society, he was one of our most wonderful members in every way," said Ruth Arsenault. "Wonderful voice; fun; great performer; kind to everybody.  And was always there no matter what any body needed. And when my husband died, and two other widows, he'd always took us to all the rehearsals and shows. Never complained. In fact, he started to give us all a little schedule for the month, what time he was picking us up, when to be ready."

At the service, Daley's reputation as MacGyver came up several times. His grandson Fred Copeman called him extraordinary.

"One thing that didn't get mentioned today just because there was so much to say about him is that he was very active in Habitat for Humanity," Copeman said. "And that's a perfect example of the man Marston was, after he learned something, he found a way to turn it around and offer it to someone else."

Madeline Noonan is the director of the Barnstable Senior Center, where Daley took the lead on several construction projects, dealing with contractors and permits and anything else.

"I feel that it was in his blood," she said, "that giving was just part of his very core. I can't say what led to that in his own upbringing. But what we saw in his presence at the senior center and what we know he did outside the senior center. He just had to be active. He just couldn't sit around and be idle. And I think that was one of the things that was particularly difficult for everyone and him to accept about the illness. His strength was basically taken away from him."

According to his family, Daley began to experience muscle weakness about eight years ago. It took three years before doctors discovered that he was having a rare but serious reaction to a cholesterol drug. They stopped the drug, but the disease was progressive and there is no cure. He spent the past few years in bed with his family caring for him.

At his Memorial Service, Daley's daughter Marca spoke about his illness, and how she would spend afternoons sitting and talking with her dad.

"I spent the last evening with him before he passed on. And as I sat with him, this poem came to mind:

"Do not go gentle into that good night.
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light..."

It's a Dylan Thomas poem. Thomas wrote it for his own dying father.

"And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. …"

Marston Daley died on October 1. He was 88 years old. The last line of his obituary reads, "Marston was kind and a gentle man who will be lovingly in our thoughts for a long time to come."