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Thank You, Joe Sawtelle

Joe Sawtelle 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 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, this crisis and that, one nightmare after another. Joe listened patiently.

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

Probably the busted oil burner, the president said. Without it the house can't be opened and repaired in the spring. We talked about ways to raise the $2,000 required - 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 out the door.

What Joe was doing, I have come to understand at last, was not giving money away, but investing. He 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. I still rent it and the rent goes toward supporting the historic house nearby. One well-placed investment has created a permanent trickle of funds. It isn't enough, but it helps.

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 so far to college. 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." Maybe mogul applies to the man who bought and sold Mariner's Village, or 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. 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 his 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, of which he 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 that 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. He has been called a visionary, a genius, a fairy godfather, a catalyst, a saint and a savior. With Joe gone, people are 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." The mediocre teacher talks, the superior teacher does. We learn, at first, simply by watching him work. Then we emulate that work, apprentice, pitch in.

Then one day, the ferryboat stops, and the master teacher gets off. We 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. Everyone takes a little. Everyone gives a little more. Everyone wins.

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 good friend Joe Sawtelle.

For information on charitable giving in the Seacoast contact The Greater Piscataqua Charitable Trust
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Article and photo by J. Dennis Robinson

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

Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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