Dick Wagner, who founded the Center for Wooden Boats as a way to remind Seattleites of their city’s maritime history, died last week at 84. He is remembered as a fierce defender of water access for all.
When it comes to teaching history, there are two schools of thought — respectful viewing from a distance, versus the hands-on approach. Dick Wagner, who founded the Center for Wooden Boats on Lake Union more than 40 years ago, spent his life devoted to the latter.
He died Thursday at home, after a brief illness. He was 84.
“Learning to sail is like learning to ride a bike or learning to drive,” Mr. Wagner once told a writer profiling him for a Columbia University alumni magazine. “It’s not an education by laptop or lectern. You learn naturally, by watching and doing.”
A native of East Rutherford, N.J., Mr. Wagner had been trained as an architect, with no experience sailing. But during the mid-1950s, en route to a summer job in San Francisco, he stopped in Seattle. That sudden change of plans would alter the trajectory of his life and affect thousands of others.
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He fell in love with the city, found a floating home to live in on the shores of Lake Union and eventually married one of his neighbors, the former Colleen Luebke. Their hip-sounding setup was, in those days, distinctly unconventional. Lake Union was an industrial wasteland at the time, a place few could have imagined as the magnet for restaurants and tourism it is today.
The Wagners, however, saw it as a bastion of history embodied in the hulls of small watercraft, even as the repair shops around them were closing, the rowboats discarded and a heritage rotting away. So they began to collect.
Within a decade, the couple owned about two dozen small boats and realized that they could use these artifacts as a means to teach maritime history and craft through direct experience. That is, showing people — particularly children — how to build, repair and sail wooden boats.
“Nobody had ever done anything like it before. Zoos had petting, but we were much different from that,” Mr. Wagner recalled recently. “We want this to be a community where anybody can come to look, or play or work.”
Of particular interest to Mr. Wagner was access for the disabled, the homeless, high-school dropouts and others not typically involved with life on the water.
“He always said, ‘It’s great to preserve the boats, but the people are more important,’” recalled Judie Romeo, a longtime friend who became membership coordinator for the museum. “For far too long, boating was the recreation of the elite. Dick and Colleen wanted knowledge about boats to be available to everybody, and the way to do it was to get the people down here.”
Their first major event was a Wooden Boats Festival in 1977 — mainly to measure public interest. They hoped to see maybe 1,000 people. But 3,000 showed up.
From those homemade beginnings, the Center for Wooden Boats was born. And until he died, Mr. Wagner remained adamant about the importance of democratizing sailing, insisting that the museum’s Sunday Public Sails remain free of charge as a community service. He saw fostering experiences for individuals as more meaningful than packing in huge crowds, favored handwritten letters over email blasts — even as his museum grew in reputation.
Now in its 41st year, the Center for Wooden Boats hosts about 100,000 visitors annually, Romeo said, and will open its first land-based building — an education center — this fall.
“The goal was always to get a tool, an oar, a tiller or a mainsheet in someone’s hand,” wrote Caren Crandell, first assistant director at the center, who now teaches at the University of Washington, Bothell. “So they could feel the wood, the water or the wind as they discovered with amazement what they could do.”
Mr. Wagner is survived by his wife, sister, two sons and a grandchild. There will be no public services.
In lieu of flowers, Wagner’s family has asked that donations be made to the Center for Wooden Boats. Donations can be made online at cwb.org, over the phone at 206-382-2628, or in person (1010 Valley St, Seattle, WA, 98109). Please include “Dick Wagner Memorial” in the memo or notes line.