On April 20, 2017, Dick Wagner passed away at home at the age of 84.
I first met Dick in 1976 or 1977 at The Old Boathouse, a small-boat livery he and his wife Colleen were running out of their floating home on northwest corner of Seattle’s Lake Union. In their watery “back yard” Dick had a handful of pulling boats; I rented a White Bear skiff a few times to take a girlfriend out rowing on the lake. I was then recently graduated from college and wasn’t quite sure what I would do with my life. I had done quite a few backpacking and bicycling trips through my teens, and in 1978 decided I’d do some long-distance cruising in a small boat. I didn’t have enough money to buy a boat, so I started reading up on boatbuilding. That same year Dick and some other devotees of wooden boats created the Center for Wooden Boats and put on the first Wooden Boat Festival.
The community that Dick was instrumental in bringing together played a large part in steering me toward a life devoted to small boats. The Center was a place where I could meet with others interested in wooden boats, and the festival was an event where I could learn from experienced builders. The beautifully crafted boats I saw there set the standard for the boats I would build.
When I brought the first of my boats to the festival, I wanted my work to pass muster with the other boatbuilders there whose craftsmanship I admired. And when I found myself on the receiving end of praise for my work, I was even more inspired to make every boat I built better than the one that preceded it. The festivals became the highlight of my summers. Dick orchestrated them with efficiency and grace and I was happy to repay in some small measure the opportunity he had provided me by staying after the festivals closed to help clean up the site.
As I gained experience in small-boat cruising, Dick invited me to contribute articles in Shavings, the Center’s newsletter, and he even ran the story of my first long cruise in a special edition that was distributed at the festival. He also asked me to do presentations at the Center’s monthly Third Friday Speaker Series.
My early travels in small boats were just personal adventures, but Dick showed me that they had more value than I had placed upon them. I doubt that the trajectory I took when I first started building and traveling in wooden boats would have taken me as far had it not been for the boost I got from Dick and the Center for Wooden Boats.
The Center has remained an important part of my life for almost 40 years, and even now, when I’m out paddling or biking, I’ll often stop to visit. There may not be anything new to see from one week to the next, but I feel the same fondness for the place as I do when I stop by the house where I grew up. In recent years, I would often find Dick there. He had handed over the day-to-day running of the Center to others quite some time ago, but I suspect he was there for the same reasons I was. It was always a pleasure to cross paths with him. He had aged well and exuded a fatherly warmth.
His passing is certainly a great loss to our community, but the effects of his vision, his wisdom, and his generosity will be felt for generations to come. I am just one of the innumerable people who are deeply indebted to him.