Robert F. Sweitzer, 77, waterman who operated skipjack

April 05, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Robert F. "Pete" Sweitzer, one of the vanishing breed of Chesapeake Bay watermen who dredged oysters and potted crabs from the decks of the skipjack Hilda M. Willing for more than 50 years, died Sunday of a heart attack at Franklin Square Hospital Center. He was 77 and lived in Tilghman.

Born in Somerset County, Pa., Mr. Sweitzer grew up on a Tilghman Island farm. After graduating from Talbot County public schools, he enlisted in the Navy in 1942.

He served as a boatswain's mate aboard destroyers and Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) in the Atlantic theater and participated in the invasion of Salerno, Italy. He was later reassigned to the Pacific, where he was discharged in 1945.

Returning to Tilghman Island, Mr. Sweitzer decided to make a living on the water, purchasing an interest in a skipjack with two other watermen.

Wanting to own his own boat, he purchased the 40-foot-long Hilda M. Willing, a skipjack with a jib-headed mainsail and large jib, for $1,600 in 1947.

The distinctive Chesapeake Bay craft had been built in Oriole, Somerset County, in 1905, and named by its builder for his deceased daughter. A 1993 National Historic Landmark study noted that the Hilda M. Willing's lengthy ownership by Mr. Sweitzer was perhaps a record in the history of the fleet.

Through the years, Mr. Sweitzer, who also was a self-taught and highly regarded shipwright, altered his vessel to allow him to be more competitive economically.

"In 1949, Mr. Sweitzer was the first to install an automobile engine on a skipjack for hauling in the dredge," according to the study.

"Pete Sweitzer has a reputation for doing what he thinks best, not what tradition or what the other watermen will do," concluded the study, which suggested he played a significant role in getting the Maryland legislature to limit oyster dredging to Monday and Tuesday, a law many skipjack captains fought but later realized saved the skipjack from extinction.

Mr. Sweitzer's days were long. He'd rise in the darkness before dawn and would leave the dock at 4 a.m., oftentimes not returning until 6 p.m., with holds bulging with crabs or oysters.

"He was a good skipjack captain and kept his boat in good shape. He also was one of the top captains in terms of catch," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

"He was a fair but stern man and his crewmen, many of whom had worked for him for 15 to 30 years, really respected him," said a son, Barry F. Sweitzer of Baltimore, who has owned the skipjack since his father retired in 2000, and continues the family tradition of dredging oysters and harvesting crabs.

But, because of Mr. Sweitzer's longevity working on the bay, he saw drastic changes.

"He really began to notice changes in the 1970s with the dying of the bay grasses and declining oyster bars. He became an advocate for the bay and went to Annapolis to talk to government officials. He was confident something could be done," said the son, who is also a marine police officer with the Baltimore County Police Department.

"Pete was a tremendously hard worker who had a large family and put them all through college. He worked in all kinds of weather. It was never too windy or icy. When other guys stayed in, he went out. He was just a cut above everyone else," said Levin "Buddy" Harrison Sr., owner of Harrison's Chesapeake House on Tilghman Island.

Last year, when his son pulled the Hilda M. Willing to shore for a rebuild, Mr. Sweitzer threw himself into the arduous work.

"At 77, there he was underneath caulking the seams. In the 1970s, when he needed a new mast, he made it himself," said the son.

When he wasn't working, Mr. Sweitzer liked relaxing in his recliner looking out at the Choptank River from the living room of his 19th-century cedar-shingled home, where he had lived with his wife of 50 years, the former Grace E. Dalkin, until her death in 1998.

He was active in the community, making sure that the grass in the cemetery of Tilghman United Methodist Church was cut. He donated money that helped build grandstands for the Tilghman Little League baseball field, and every summer, would invite the town to his home for a crab feast.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. today at Tilghman United Methodist Church on Tilghman Island.

He is survived by three other sons, Bob Sweitzer of Tilghman, Bill Sweitzer of Preston and Brady Sweitzer of Kent Island; a daughter, Evelyn Resseigue of Baltimore; five sisters, Bernice Leonard, Erma Harper and Lois Loretangeli, all of St. Michaels, Rea Poore of Bozman and Sue Shores of Claiborne; and seven grandchildren.

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