Thank You, Joe Sawtelle
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

sawtelle.jpgFAMOUS PEOPLE 

Only after his untimely death did the Seacoast recognize its debt to Joe. Known to the public as a businessman, landlord and developer, Joe was an unstoppable philanthropist. His hand, it turned out, was everywhere. But he did not just give away money. Joe taught people to multiply his gifts like the loaves and fishes.

 

 

 

Remembering Joseph Sawtelle (1928 – 2000)

Originally published March 6, 2000

On our brief ferry ride to Eternity, I believe, most passengers aboard fall into two classes -- the talkers and the doers. In the first class cabin you'll find the big talkers and the big doers. Usually quiet, always busy, no one will ever doubt which ticket Joe Sawtelle was holding. When he died this week at the age of 71, the engine that drives the Seacoast sputtered audibly without his guiding hand.

For decades, if you wanted something done around here, especially if it pertained to local history, everyone said, "Go ask Joe."

When the Portsmouth Athenaeum was cramped for space, he bought and donated an adjoining condo in Market Square. Months ago, he donated another condo. When the historic submarine Albacore was consigned to the scrap heap, Joe Sawtelle managed to rip apart a major road and float the sub through the road to its own museum site.

Joe single-handedly supported the publication of about 30 maritime history volumes published by his friend Peter Randall and the Portsmouth Marine Society. In doing so he salvaged and compiled the seagoing history of hundreds of locally built clipper ships, whalers, subs, battleships, sloops, gundalows, frigates, tugs and more. Joe's pet project was John Paul Jones ship Ranger and he researched and edited the definitive book on the topic.

Everyone in the history community has a Joe story or two. I sat near to him at a long dull historic house meeting a few years back. The trustees moaned on about lack of funds, about this crisis and that, one nightmare after another. Joe listened patiently.

"What's the most pressing problem we have here?" Joe asked at last. "Which problem prevents us from moving on to the others?"

Caught off guard, the society president said that the busted oil burner was likely the most troublesome problem needing the most immediate attention. Without fixing it, the house could not be opened and then a series of maintenance and museum projects would not be finished.

"How much will it cost to fix the burner and how can we raise the money?" Joe asked.

We talked about ways to raise the $2,000 required. Traditionally the museum held bake sales, lawn parties, telephone solicitation. As the meeting ended, smiling, wordless, Joe waited as a short line of trustees spoke with the president. When his turn came, he placed a check for the full amount of the oil burner repair on the table and walked quietly out the door.

What Joe was doing, I have come to understand at last, was not giving money away. He was investing. Joe was methodically creating the kind of community he wanted to live in. He did it with buildings and dollars, and he did it with people. When the Portsmouth Historical Society needed to increase its annual income to stay alive, Joe turned the old carriage house on the property into a little office. I rented it and the rent goes toward supporting the historic house nearby. One well-placed investment created a permanent trickle of funds out of previously unused building. It isn't enough, but it helps. It is much more than nothing.

Those who followed the local papers this week may think there's nothing Joe Sawtelle didn't start or support in Portsmouth. There was Theater-by-the-Sea, Crossroads House, a chunk of land at the heart of Prescott Park. Through the Futures Foundation he sent nearly 100 kids to college who would never have been able to afford it. Through the Piscataqua Charitable Foundation, he managed to touch the rest of us in ways few people knew. The list goes on and on. Usually he worked quietly, anonymously, behind the scenes.

One newspaper report this week described him as a "Seacoast philanthropist and real estate mogul." The mogul applies to the man who bought and sold Mariner's Village housing development, or who turned crumbling 19th century mill buildings into office space in Portsmouth, Dover, Rochester, Gonic and Somersworth. He and his partner were planning to do the same thing with the old prison at the Navy Yard. But no other mogul I've met, ever gave so much to his community in return.

"Maybe I don't talk about my projects enough," he told me one day. "I'm not very good at tooting my own horn."

We had been sitting in Joe’s car with the motor running for maybe twenty minutes. Joe was planning to display two dozen rare paintings from his collection of Portsmouth-built ships. I was supposed to organize the display in the lobby of a local bank, a bank where Joe just happened to be the director. It was a project we tossed around for years, but one that never happened.

We talked, well mostly I talked that afternoon in his big car in the winter, outside my office – the one he had built. We talked about John Paul Jones, tall ships and a couple of history books I want to write. We talked about his projects past, present and future.

"I wonder," he said very quietly at one point, "if people will remember me when I'm gone."

Based on the outpouring of praise we've heard this last week, it appears people will. Joe Sawtelle has been called a visionary, a genius, a fairy godfather, a catalyst, a saint and a savior. Before his death, most people who knew him, knew him mostly as a landlord, a developer and a speculator.

With Joe gone, people are now saying, the region will never be the same again. Men like him come along once in a lifetime, we're told.

Maybe not. For my money, of all the laudable things Joe Sawtelle did, the word that describes him best is "teacher." A mediocre teacher talks. The superior teacher does. We learn simply by watching him work. Then we emulate that work. That is how great teachers change the world.

Sadly, one day, the ferryboat stops, and the master teacher steps off. Now we students are all left – not just with his great works -- but with the skills we've learned. The Sawtelle legacy, more than the inevitable brass plaques and faded monuments, could be an entire community of philanthropists. You don’t have to be a millionaire, Joe knew, to make a difference. You just have to stop talking, and get the job done. You don’t give money away, you invest in the people who have the greatest chance of learning to eventually support themselves. Then they too can support others.

If we really truly admire the things he did, we will work together to create the kind of community he wanted to live in. We might all talk a little less, do a little more, and take a lesson from our teacher and good friend Joe.

 

Copyright © 2000 J. Dennis Robinson. Revised 2008. Photo by the author depicts sculpture of Joe Sawtelle by Sumner Weinbaum at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.