by Jon Perrson
Steve Jones is known for telling a good story, but picking a single storyline about Steve Jones is another matter. His life’s voyage has taken many a tack to reach the safe harbors of his realized ambitions. The diverse views of port and starboard, of working man and intellectual, bring with them a collection of knowledge and experiences that mark a life of many satisfactions. And stories, the revered teaching tool of gathered wisdom.
To find Steve Jones on a late November afternoon, one must first find an iron gate, fashioned by a blacksmith from Mystic Seaport, topped with the letters FHP. Through this, a walkway leads to the back door which leads past a vintage wooden steering wheel and station. Stairs beckon one to the offices where Steve Jones sits waiting. There are books and boat models, and photographs, all arranged in the efficient clutter so misunderstood by the obsolescent modern time manager. Steve knows where everything is, and no one else needs to; it is the mark of a productive mind in constant motion.
Steve was introduced to boats and life on the water by his father, Edward Jones, who owned and sailed a string of sailboats throughout his life (“he swapped boats every two years,” recalls Steve.) For years the Jones crew sailed out of Essex, on the Connecticut River; there, young Steve met two men who would influence his view on life; Major William Smythe, who ran the Dauntless Shipyard, and Seth Persson, boat builder of Old Saybrook.
To honor his military service requirement, Steve joined the Coast Guard, where he served as a lighthouse keeper and crew at a lifeboat station on Delaware Bay. He recounts how there are no buoys on that lengthy stretch of water, only the lighthouses to keep the vigilant out of the surrounding shoals.
After leaving the Coast Guard, Steve worked for a time at the Mystic Marine Railway, in which his father had become a partner. These were the days of wooden boats, always in need of some amount of tinkering and tasks. But life afloat held sway, and on another tack Steve went lobstering, singlehanded on a traditional Noank boat with offset pilothouse, powered by a Lathrop engine, the local engine of choice.
These experiences continue to chart his life, and his work, the line between vocation and avocation often difficult to discern. Into this stream, a love of literature joins in, words flowing with the wakes of time spent working on lobsterboats, the waters of his cruising grounds reflecting passages of Shakespeare’s verse and rhyme.
At the University of Connecticut, Steve earned his degree in English, and acted out the world of Shakespeare’s words. His story remains on course with the university, as he continues a now decades long career as Professor Stephen Jones, at UConn’s Avery Point campus. There he teaches English, the works of Shakespeare, and courses in Coastal and Maritime Studies, which he championed into existence. His depth of knowledge and experience, coupled with his flair for storytelling, have earned him the highest praise a teacher may receive; that of his students, who rate him (at ratemyprofessor.com) as “the best English professor ever,” saying they “still think about things he taught me everyday.” And, a life’s lesson, “don’t be afraid of going on boats.”
Professor Jones continues his double-life as a literate boatman, being a founding co-owner of the West Mystic Wooden Boat Co. Here, people with an attraction to the wooden hulled boats of yore find a place to work on their prized projects, away from the mass production dreams of fiberglass and chrome.
Steve recounts how a young business-school type once defamed the old time boatyards of Steve Jones’ enlightened youth, an encounter which played a part in the founding of the boatyard. He has of late been inspired to write the story of his old fashioned boatyard, enough for the makings of a book on the subject.
There are other stories at this boatyard, filled with weathered characters also, and a boatyard cat, it seems; and, there are the old books of nautical feats and mariner’s lives, no longer published for the informing of younger generations.
And so it was, on another tack, that Steve and fellow mariner Robert McKenna formed Flat Hammock Press in 2001. The independent publishing company revives and reprints the maritime stories of the past, beginning with a series on the Prohibition rum runners of another era. Work continues on an extended story of The Real McCoy, a teetotaling boatbuilder turned rum runner who brought a mariner’s integrity to the smuggler’s trade.
Steve also edits books for some of the characters turned authors of his world; and he writes books, about the 1883 oyster boat Anne, restored and stewarded by the boatyard . There are illustrated children’s books about a boatyard cat named Scratch. And, due for publishing next year, a book on the timeless boatyard Steve and a cast of non-conforming characters have carved out on the Mystic River.
Words and action are a short tack away from film, a venue where Steve has enjoyed considerable and ongoing success. A series of documentaries have aired on Public Television, with a work on the rum running Real McCoy winning five Emmy awards. Next year, a documentary will air on the ferry boats of the Connecticut River, including the nation’s oldest at Rocky Hill.
On this now cool November evening, Steve Jones leads the way out of the offices of the Flat Hammock Press, located in the brick building which once housed part of the Lathrop Engine manufacturing plant. The buildings now house a restaurant and stores, and a link to a time when engines and boats were both local products. Across the street, Schooner Wharf hosts an array of vessels, the schooner Argia, the Alden cutter that Ed Jones sold in 1947 as a vessel too old to keep. At pier’s end is a rectangular vessel with handrails at each rail, an actor that with props and makeup plays the role of several generation’s ferry boats in Steve’s upcoming documentary.
Steve is as often at work on projects which carry the historic into a new round of living memory. Often he has personal connections to the public service her performs. For most people, a lighthouse is a picturesque and vaguely romantic structure on a lonely, windswept coast. For a former lighthouse keeper, lighthouses are both the apparatus of a sacred mission, and the home of fond and dramatic memories. When Groton’s Avery Point Light was under restoration, Steve and his son donated the labor to rebuild the lantern room, lighting if momentarily a beacon once again to the sailors and sightseers of the professor’s favored seas.
To some, Steve Jones may seem a paradox, a man always intent on present and future projects which tell the tales of the salt and earthy past. The purpose is clear, though; to keep memory alive of course, but also to bring a time of simple living to the complex lives of his young readers and students.
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