His last boat built, boatwright had completed life

November 13, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

Boat builder John Gregory lived to see his last job completed in May when he stood in the cold rain in Galesville as they christened the wooden vessel that bore his own name. He did not say much at the ceremony, and what he did say you had to stand close to hear.

Mr. Gregory cared little for words. He cared most about the work at hand, in this case a 39-foot workboat built in a style popular in the 1920s, when Mr. Gregory was a boy. The 82-year-old man had lived to see the days of the Hooper Island Drake tail come and go.

For 18 months, Mr. Gregory formed the quiet center of the Draketail Maritime Project, in which a crew of children and their parents built a boat together in southern Anne Arundel County. He watched patiently as these novices struggled to learn the rudiments of a craft he mastered decades ago as he built sailboat after sailboat and raced them on the West River.

"In his quietness was such a power," said Robert Besse of Snug Harbor, the anthropologist who launched the draketail project. "Because what he knew, he really knew . . . When he put his hand on the draketail it was like it was OK."

When Mr. Besse first met Mr. Gregory two years ago, he could not help but notice his hands, those big, powerful hands on this frail man. That was in Shady Side, and Mr. Besse had arranged the meeting to talk with Mr. Gregory about this project he had in mind.

Mr. Besse talked and Mr. Gregory listened. Mr. Gregory could not imagine why anyone would want to build a wooden boat. He could not imagine why in the world anyone would seek the help of John Gregory, former Navy cabinetmaker, who had retired about 30 years ago and was living out his days quietly, privately, in the home he and his late wife had shared in Shady Side.

As Mr. Besse remembered it, Mr. Gregory spoke but a sentence or two. They went something like this: " 'Well, it certainly sounds like a crazy, wonderful idea.' He said, 'Call me when you get things more organized.' "

And Mr. Besse did. Because the project required it. They were building a boat, yes, but they were also hoping to learn something about the old values of community and hard work. Mr. Gregory had lived them.

"He was a visitor from the past," said Mr. Besse. Talking with him about boats and the bay was like "tapping into a historical encyclopedia."

This private man agreed reluctantly to join in this rather public endeavor. He did not want to be cast in a leading role. He certainly did not want his name carved in gold letters on the stern of the completed boat. He didn't even want to be called "boatwright."

He was one, of course, "One of the last true artisans, very knowledgeable, skilled," said George Kuehn of Riva, who worked on the project with his 12-year-old daughter, Stephanie. "He believed in tearing it out and doing it right if you made a mistake," Mr. Kuehn said.

"He was really nice," said Stephanie Kuehn, an eighth-grader at Central Middle School in Edgewater. "He was really dedicated to his work . . . He taught me how to use tools, the plane and the drill press and the saws."

For months Mr. Kuehn and Mr. Gregory worked side by side figuring out how to build the draketail's distinctive curved stern. They worked on paper, they made wooden templates, they went by trial and error. Mr. Gregory had built many boats, but this was his first draketail.

He brought to the project "a lot of love, and a sense of uniting the generations," said Mark Hazelden, an electrical engineer RTC from Shady Side who worked on the boat from the beginning.

For months Mr. Gregory's attitude toward the project was one of "pleasant shock," a kind of cheery skepticism, said Mr. Besse. He couldn't believe it was happening. This man who lived alone since his wife died 12 years ago simply could not fathom all the attention.

He "didn't know quite what to make of people's love for him," said Mr. Hazelden.

He certainly didn't know what to make of the crowd that gathered outside his door a year ago bearing gifts and a cake. As Mr. Hazelden remembered it, he stood there and said "if it weren't for the fact that my birthday was tomorrow I'd say this was a surprise birthday party."

"It is," Mr. Besse told him.

"I was afraid of that," said Mr. Gregory.

Members of the draketail crew had been gathering at Mr. Gregory's home in Shady Side again this past few days. Only this week they came to say goodbye. A week ago, he was released from Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis, where his terminal cancer was diagnosed in late October. He died yesterday morning in his sleep. A private funeral service for family members only is planned on Saturday.

Only in this past week did the strength of his hands seem to ebb, Mr. Besse said. Mr. Gregory seemed frightened in the hospital, knowing the gravity of his illness. But at home, Mr. Besse said, "I asked him point blank how he felt about going. He said 'I feel OK.' "

It was as if "he finished his job and he said it was time to go," Mr. Besse said. "And what a job it was."

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