Thursday, January 29, 2015

Meet Capt. John Doswell, "a bona fide superhero"


Capt. John Doswell (photo by Mitch Waxman)

"If you wanted to know pretty much anything about New York Harbor, you could ask John. I will always regret not asking John more stuff. I thought I had more time."
-- from "Fair Winds, Captain John," Working Harbor Committee
blogger Mai Armstrong's remembrance of Capt. John Doswell

by Ken

With the arrival today of the February issue of On the Hip, the e-newsletter of the Working Harbor Committee of New York and New Jersey, which WHC Chair Rebecca Weisbrod leads off with a piece called "Moving Forward," indicating that WHC plans to do just that in the face of its enormous loss early this month, I had a second chance to read the lovely piece WHC's daily blogger Mai Armstrong wrote on the sad occasion of the death of the life force of WHC, its executive director, Capt. John Doswell. And one line popped out at me:
John Doswell was a bona fide superhero. He created beauty from decay, he restored life to stagnant waters, he built people into a community, where before there was none.
I never knew Captain John except to say hello to at WHC events, mostly boat trips of one sort or another on and around the harbor that had become the focus of his energies -- in particular the swell Hidden Harbor cruises that took so many New Yorkers and visitors to places around the harbor that most people who aren't professionally engaged in harbor activities didn't used to get to see.

Before a WHC event Captain John could usually be seen racing around, clipboard in hand, doing whatever had to be done to get the damned thing underway. Then once we were out on the open harbor, Captain John could usually be heard manning the microphone for the running commentary, which he orchestrated with guest speakers from various walks of life somehow bound into the life of the harbor -- pols, administrators, shipping-industry folk, etc.

I was always aware that I was seeing only the tip of the iceberg of Captain John's harbor-related activities, but it was always great to see him on the job, knowing that meant he was also doing all those other harbor-related things. And somehow, rereading Mai's remembrance, I thought "superhero" was on the money. I don't doubt that Captain John loved being at the center of that activity, but there was never any sense that that activity was about him. It was about the life of the harbor, which plays such an important role in the life of New York City and the surrounding metropolitan area, and also about the life of the people who make their livings from the harbor.

I might add that Captain John seemed to draw good people to him. It was via WHC events and events of the like-minded Newtown Creek Alliance that I first got to hang out with Mai herself (a real sweetheart) and that tireless Man About the Harbor and Man About Astoria, Mitch Waxman, whose multifarious exploits have been chronicled in this space on a number of occasions.

I realize that the workings of New York's Working Harbor Committee will likely fall well outside the normal concerns of most DWT readers. I'm hoping, though, that some readers, at least, will be well served by this belated glimpse of a special guy -- as Mai says in her remembrance "the guy who made things happen," and a real superhero. Fair winds indeed, Captain John!

Fair Winds, Captain John

by Mai Armstrong

Captain John W. Doswell, our captain, our North Star, our guiding light passed away on Friday 2 January, 2015 and the WHC family and the whole waterfront community has been reeling from the news.

I have barely parsed the news of his passing and am now faced with this daunting task of writing a eulogy befitting of my friend. So many things to say about Capt. John…where to start?

John Doswell was a bona fide superhero. He created beauty from decay, he restored life to stagnant waters, he built people into a community, where before there was none.

You could always find John working. The man never stopped doing. There were piles of documents neatly stacked in the “dungeon” – the basement office from where Capt. John would steer the constant stream of waterfront projects, events, educational programs, working harbor tours and more. With that wry smile of his, he worked tirelessly on, even when he discovered he was ill.

John was so passionate about the ‘6th boro’ he dedicated the last decade of his career to our waterfront. He founded Friends of Hudson River Park, and Pier 84 is what it is today because of him. He was an integral member of many illustrious waterfront organizations and committees – North River Historic Ship Society, Community Board 4, Save Our Ships New York and the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, to name a few.

He was one of the original group of friends who bought the Fireboat John J. Harvey, and helped to restore her to working glory. He was onboard the fireboat, pumping water onto Ground Zero on 9/11 and he was onboard (with a flask of hot chocolate under his arm) safeguarding her during Hurricane Sandy.

But for me, he was the ‘guy who made things happen’. As executive director of the Working Harbor Committee, John would orchestrate the most amazing extravaganzas. 22 years of Tug Boat Races, international ship visits (including a 16th century replica of a Spanish Galleon), OpSail 2012, where part of the challenge was to find berthing for dozens of vessels from around the world.

Only one man could make it all happen. Doswell.

John would narrate every single harbor tour, enthralling boat-loads of passengers with details about the workings of our magnificent harbor, peppered with stories of lighthouse keepers and fireworks disasters. The thought of never hearing his ‘fireworks story’ again as we approach Erie Basin, makes me immeasurably sad.

If you wanted to know pretty much anything about New York Harbor, you could ask John. I will always regret not asking John more stuff. I thought I had more time.

But beneath all the hustle and bustle stood this really great man. Smart, funny and sincere, John was a kind, loving and supportive husband, father and friend.

His love and passion for the waterfront paled in comparison to his love for his daughter Jhoneen and his life-partner wife Jean. In perfect sync, they were always together, whether working to save a historic ship from scrap or traveling together to exotic seas. Their love and respect for each other so evident and beautiful.

John, always gracious, welcomed everyone with open arms and an open heart. He never spoke an unkind word about anyone, or lost his temper, that I know of. His positivity permeated everything he did.

Every obstacle was a challenge we could overcome, every set back merely a springboard to success, in every dark cloud he would see only the silver lining.

We have lost a great teacher. We have lost a great leader. We have lost a great man…

Fair winds, Captain John.



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