Bernie Holzer of West Tisbury, a Midwesterner who retired from a long oceangoing career as a merchant seaman to begin a 25-year second career as a purser and quartermaster aboard Steamship Authority vessels, died on August 10 in Boston. He was 80 years old.
Bernie was best known to Islanders and visitors who traveled on the ferries for his friendly, cheery personality at the beginning of each trip. He was the voice of the ferry line, reminding travelers that “there is no smoking on this vessel inside or out. That means you don’t smoke for 45 minutes,” that the travelers must “make sure you take all your belongings, and don’t leave anything behind, including your children.”
To his wide circle of devoted friends, made and cultivated over half a century, at first during years of visits between voyages on freighters and tankers, and later during his years as a permanent West Tisbury resident, he was a fixture in all of their lives, ever a cheerful, busy, dependable, first-to-pitch-in, gossipy, storytelling, heartwarming presence.
Bernie, who suffered with dementia, had fallen several days before his death, which was attributed by his family to the fall and the complications associated with dementia.
Bernie was born on September 4, 1934, in Toledo, Ohio, to Bernard and Teresa Holzer. He grew up in Toledo and began his seafaring trade as a coal passer on lakers, the Great Lakes freighters that carry bulk cargoes in and out of the Midwest. It wasn’t his plan exactly, but his father saw a chance to improve Bernie’s fortunes and took it, as any father might. The career path for 18-year-olds in Toledo at the time was narrow and discouragingly steep, and Bernie didn’t mind that. He and his buddies, he often recalled, were having a lot of fun doing the things that city teenagers enjoyed. His dad persuaded Bernie to apply at the union hall where seamen waited for jobs. And, the day came when dad hunted Bernie down to say that he’d had a call from the union hall. There was a berth available if he wanted it. Bernie told his dad that, of course, he certainly did, but to get it he’d have to drive a couple of hours to meet the ship. Bernie, who had no car, said it was a shame but he had no way to get there. His dad said, I’ll drive you.
“Bernie went to sea in an age when sailors spliced wire as easily and frequently as tying a knot in a rope,” John Christensen of West Tisbury, Bernie’s friend and a deck officer aboard merchant ships, says. “Before the push button age of hydraulic cranes and machinery, which even now belong to another century, Bernie was ‘spotting’ booms over the cargo hatches, reeving a ‘yard and stay’ rig so that cargo could be plucked from the hold using a single steam winch and landed safely on deck.
“Though able-bodied seamen usually served as helmsman as it came their turn according on watch, when steering up rivers in Vietnam during the war [and with bombs lighting the sky around his ship, as Bernie described it], when grounding could be fatal, shipmasters often called for Bernie to steer out of turn, and for long ‘tricks’ at the wheel until they were safely through. Bernie was surely an unselfconscious master of his trade.”
At 23, Bernie joined the army and served a two-year stint in Germany. Afterwards, his maritime ambitions shifted from the Great Lakes to the world and most of its seaports. He rose in the ranks to able-bodied seaman, in charge of loading and unloading cargoes. Casablanca, Odessa, Piraeus, Naples, Rio, Recife, Durban, Togo, Abidjan, Monrovia, Dakar, Manila, Da Nang, Rotterdam, Cameroon, Panama, Haifa, Saigon, Borneo, Singapore, Midway, Taiwan, Cadiz, Lagos, Hamburg, Yokohama, and Tanjung Manis, Borneo were a few of the seaports he visited. He shipped out on the S/S Austral Patriot, S/S Gibbes Lykes, S/S African Dawn, S/S Flying Clipper, S/S Gulf Queen, S/S American Leader, S/S American Reliance, S/S African Sun, S/S Mormactrade, S/S Export Buyer, and a host of others. And he kept a log of all his voyages, the dates, destinations, sign on and sign off dates, and the shipping companies. He also took a sketchbook and, armed with two years of training at the Toledo Museum of Art, he drew and painted what he was familiar with and appreciated — boats, ships, and, later, historic 19th and 20th century Vineyard and Nantucket ferries. Seafaring and history combined in his art, for instance in his brilliantly colorful rendering of the attack on the USS Maine in Havana, on February 15, 1898.
Bernie found his way to the Vineyard after making the acquaintance of Lambert Knight of Vineyard Haven and sailing with Captain Knight in the West Indies. For Bernie, to make an acquaintance was to make a friend for the long haul. Visiting the Vineyard and the Knights, Bernie met Captain Robert Douglas, Shenandoah’s master. The two were close friends for nearly a half century until Bernie’s death.
In the early 1980s, Bernie bought land on a hilltop near a farm in West Tisbury and built a house. His property was near that of his friends — Ross Gannon, Matthew and Martha Stackpole, Bob and Peggy Schweir, Peter Anderson, plus this writer and his then wife, Joyce Spooner. He didn’t give up the sea immediately, but eventually the wanderlust diminished and, his seaman’s pedigree and seniority established, he joined the Steamship Authority. After navigating oceans over many decades, he began a long series of shorter passages between Vineyard Haven, Woods Hole, Hyannis, and Nantucket, work he retired from at age 72.
It wasn’t as if he’d come ashore, but his trading offshore voyages for alongshore trips surprised his friends. What astonished them was his marriage on December 28, 1987, at the Dukes County Courthouse in Edgartown to Simmy Denhart of Vineyard Haven, a schoolteacher in Tisbury. Bernie and Simmy met on a beach in the West Indies, and she admits that she wasn’t charmed at first, but ultimately, friendship and devotion were irresistible parts of Bernie’s essence. A few months after meeting, they were married.
Bernie’s small house was sparsely furnished. Simmy came with furniture, energy, and a sense of how a sailor’s cabin could become their home. They became a team, a team never without a project. They added on to the tiny house, added a studio for Bernie’s painting and a shop and a guest house, terraced gardens and stonework. They did the work together, often mentored by Ross Gannon, the boatbuilder. Bernie and Simmy were never bored. They traveled often, skied and sailed together, and read aloud to one another. A great reader of history and biography, as his sight dimmed, Bernie listened to books on tape, despite some hearing loss common to members of his family. Simmy sums up their years together this way, “It was a great ride.”
Until his fall, Bernie still went regularly to sea, although alongshore not deepwater. He went lobstering every Saturday with Bill Austin, Tom Reynolds, and John Christensen, in Bill’s boat. The four, friends for decades, got a few lobsters every time, although Bernie admits he doesn’t like to eat lobster. Rather, it was the friendship, not the lobster pots, he was tending.
In his seagoing days, when Bernie was between ships he made regular visits to all his friends. He’d fire up his motorcycle and cruise from one to another. He might stay for lunch. He’d hold the new babies, but when there was a hint of more profound entanglements, he’d say, “I got to go.” After years of shipping out from Boston, New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, and elsewhere, when Bernie wanted a ship his seniority meant that the choice of berths was his. So, if he needed to clear out, nothing stood in his way. As excuses go, “I’m shipping out from New York the day after tomorrow” always did the trick.
But, along with her loving companionship, Simmy brought Bernie a family. Her son, Evan, his wife, Pip, who live in Portland, Oregon, have two children, Alex and Kate, to whom Bernie became grandfather, and over time he perfected his latent grandfatherly skills, so that instead of shipping out, Bernie pitched in.
And, he extended his friendly, watchful nature to children who traveled on the ferries on which he served, especially the Falmouth Academy students who traveled every weekday to Woods Hole and back. He teased them, pestered them to do their homework, kept track of their flirtations, and even made reports to parents when his oversight led him to worry about them. Sometimes, he kept the truth to himself if he judged it prudent to do so. The children called him Bernie or Uncle Bernie.
What you want in a shipmate is a lot like what you want in a friend. I have a photograph of my son Matthew, Bernie, and me, sailing in a fall gaff riggers’ race out of Vineyard Haven, which we won. The weather was snotty and dead ahead — we ought to have stayed home — the current against us on both legs, and Vineyard Sound came over the rail repeatedly on the windward stretch to soak us thoroughly. Bernie said it was a treat, just a damp day offshore.
Bernie is survived by his wife, Simmy, and her son, Evan, and daughter in law, Pip, their children, Alex and Kate, all of Portland, Oregon; two sisters, Joan Whidden of Roanoke, Virginia, and Bernadette Bolen of Toledo; and many nieces and nephews.
A gathering of friends and family will take place on Saturday, August 30, at 5 pm, at Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway, in Vineyard Haven.
Note: Excerpts from a column I called At Large, published on July 18, 2012 in The Martha’s Vineyard Times, appear here and in an earlier blog post.