Museum's first skipper steered a true course

Way Back When

December 04, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

R.J. "Jim" Holt, a Honeywell Corp. executive, came to know and love the Eastern Shore and its maritime heritage while spending summers with his family in Bozman.

Holt, who was named the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum's first full-time director in 1971, died last month at an Easton retirement home. He was 85.

The Philadelphia native, who learned to sail as a child, later earned a degree in economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. During World War II, he served as a gunnery officer aboard the USS Saterlee, a destroyer, and participated in the Normandy Invasion on June 6, 1944. He concluded his wartime service as a naval liaison officer in the Pacific.

After leaving Honeywell, Holt turned his attention to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Founded by the Historical Society of Talbot County in 1965, the museum's mission, which has remained unchanged over nearly 40 years, is to preserve the bay's vessels, artifacts, memorabilia and culture.

The museum, which has been independent since 1966, has acquired a reputation that puts it in the same league as the Naval Academy Museum, Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons and the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va.

"He enjoyed his time here and helped get us on the map and accredited," said Vida Van Lennep, one of its original founders, the other day.

During his 17-year tenure, the museum expanded from a two-acre site with several ancient Victorian houses at Navy Point overlooking St. Michaels' busy harbor to an 18-acre site with 32 buildings.

Today, some 90,000 visitors annually come to explore the Hooper's Strait Lighthouse on the museum grounds or to study the fine lines of the skipjack Rosie Parks or the tugboat Delaware.

"Jim jumped in with his hands and feet and established the foundation and endowments. He always found a way to find money to build and got a lot of mileage out of the little resources that were available. He was able to put the museum on a firm financial footing," said John R. Valliant, who succeeded Holt as executive director at his 1987 retirement.

Holt, who exuded a comfortable, low-key and humble demeanor, was however, possessed of tremendous powers of persuasion and an entrepreneurial flair.

"A good example would be our marine railway. All the pieces came from a different place," Valliant said.

"Much of today's museum has Jim Holt's stamp on it-and he did all of this on the fly: borrowing here, begging there, cajoling donors to help with various projects," said a tribute on the museum's Web site. "His official title was director-curator but one might also have added financial officer, operations manager, personnel director, dockmaster, fund-raiser and custodian."

"Whether you were a major donor or a guy just digging ditches, he treated everyone the same way. And when it came to his office, he had an open door policy. He really did because he had the door removed," Valliant said.

Holt wasn't satisfied with the status quo. He was always looking ahead and planning for the future.

"It wasn't just boats that he wanted to preserve but also the waterfront. He didn't want Navy Point to become just another condominium site," Valliant said.

Holt acquired parcels of land on Mill Street and Foggs Cove, which is the present location of the museum's Steamboat Building and Waterman's Wharf.

"He was very good at making deals and was a great visionary when he came to seeing what we could become," Valliant said.

At a reception marking his retirement party, Holt looked around the room and described his time there worthy of an Old Salt.

"It's been a good sail," he said.

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