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.
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 cannot 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 cheerful, busy, dependable, first to pitch in, and a storytelling, heartwarming presence.
Bernie had suffered from dementia and had fallen several days before his death.
He was born on Sept. 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 had no car and 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,” said John Christensen of West Tisbury, Bernie’s friend and a deck officer aboard merchant ships. “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,” he said. “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, Rio, Dakar, Manila, Cameroon, Singapore, Taiwan, Yokohama and Borneo were just a few of the seaports he visited. He shipped out on the S/S Austral Patriot, the African Dawn, Flying Clipper, African Sun and a host of others. 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, 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.
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, he met Capt. Robert Douglas, Shenandoah’s master. The two were close friends for nearly a half century.
In the early 1980s, he bought land on a hilltop near a farm in West Tisbury and built a house. His friends Ross Gannon, Matthew and Martha Stackpole, Bob and Peggy Schweir and others lived nearby. Bernie didn’t give up the sea immediately, but eventually the wanderlust diminished, and with 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.
On Dec. 28, 1987, at the Dukes County Courthouse in Edgartown, he married Simmy Denhart of Vineyard Haven, a schoolteacher in Vineyard Haven. 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. 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, 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 their friend Ross Gannon, a boatbuilder. 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. 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 got a few lobsters every time, although Bernie didn’t like to eat lobster. 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.”
But along with her loving companionship, Simmy brought Bernie a family. Her son Evan and his wife Pip, who live in Portland, Ore., have two children, Alex and Kate, to whom Bernie became grandfather. Over time he perfected his latent grandfatherly skills, so that instead of shipping out, Bernie pitched in. He extended his friendly, watchful nature to children who traveled on the ferries on which he served, including 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.
In addition to his wife, her son, daughter in law and their children, he was survived by two sisters, Joan Whidden of Roanoke, Va., and Bernadette Bolen of Toledo, Ohio; and many nieces and nephews.
A gathering of friends and family will take place on Saturday, August 30, at 5 p.m., at the Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway in Vineyard Haven.
This obituary was originally written by Doug Cabral for the Martha’s Vineyard Times and was first published on August 20. It appears here in an edited version.