Dick Wagner: CWB’s True North

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Written by The Center for Wooden Boats Board of Trustees Vice President, Caren Crandell.

UPDATE: Dick Wagner’s family would like to thank our community for your support in this hard time. In lieu of flowers, they have asked that donations be made to The Center for Wooden Boats. Donations can be made online, over the phone or in person. Please include “Dick Wagner Memorial” in memo or notes line.

The Center for Wooden Boats’ navigator and true north, Founding Director Dick Wagner, passed away at home with his family on Thursday, April 20th.  His was a life well lived.

Dick was one of a kind.  A man of uncommon perseverance, he believed profoundly in the power of people.  He helped us imagine the unimaginable, inspiring us to whole-heartedly join the effort to create something brand new.  A graduate of Columbia and Yale, he was trained as an architect and thought like an urban planner.  Some people change skylines. Dick changed Seattle’s waterline.  He showed us how to bring to life a stark shoreline by providing public access to the water.  He showed us that a living museum could have mostly moving parts, and that everyone could be engaged in learning by doing.  The goal was always to get a tool, an oar, a tiller, or a mainsheet in someone’s hand, so they could feel the wood, the water, or the wind as they discovered with amazement what they could do.  That was learning, that was growing, that was living.

Passing skills from one generation to the next, we were preserving the maritime heritage that is integral to human history in the Pacific Northwest.  Dick believed in boats without barriers, serving our community across cultural and economic boundaries.

With a track record of public benefit and creative vision, Dick positioned CWB as a leader in the maritime heritage community.  He profoundly influenced the evolution of Lake Union Park and the urban neighborhood at South Lake Union.  Turn the clock back more than 30 years to CWB’s first days in South Lake Union.  Scan the shoreline from Kenmore Air to Foss Maritime, and it would be unrecognizable but for the cedar-shingled boatshop ably performing every function a fledgling hands-on museum might need.  Today, that boatshop is joined by another floating building and a new one on shore, all monuments to the enduring value of Dick’s vision.  What Dick and his wife, Colleen, started in their home so many years ago has grown into a Seattle treasure and national destination, and the new building is fittingly named the Dick and Colleen Wagner Education Center.  Years later, the State of Washington approached Dick to extend his vision and create The Center for Wooden Boats at Cama Beach State Park on Camano Island.  Still later, King County Metro partnered with CWB to activate a new site near Gas Works Park in North Lake Union.

As an unconventional community organizer and eloquent advocate for youth, Dick inspired a generation of community leaders.  He was committed to democratizing the world of sailing and using wooden boats as a force for good.  He believed CWB should serve all members of the community, especially the young and those with special needs.  He was most proud of our programs that serve homeless youth and people with physical challenges.  He considered our free Sunday Public Sails a critical community service.  There were so many important stories to tell, and a diverse collection of boats helped us tell those stories.

Dick was famously serious about the most efficient way to sail boats with traditional rigs, and if you were smart, you would heed his advice.  His intensity was matched by his impish sense of humor.  A gifted writer, he delighted in unusual metaphors, sometimes nautical, sometimes celestial, sometimes structural in nature.  As an architect and planner, he effortlessly produced surprising and inventive – even fanciful – solutions to old problems and answers to questions that no one else was asking.  Upon hearing a well-told tale or witty remark, Dick’s eyes would sparkle, his whole face would crinkle with a wide grin, and a staccato giggle would burst forth.  He was never without a pen and paper, or a napkin in a pinch, because the ideas were constantly flowing, the to-do lists were without end, and the boat sketches practically drew themselves.   A man of refined tastes, he used to keep a bottle of good scotch in his desk drawer and occasionally raise a glass at day’s end with treasured friends, who were invariably devoted CWB donors and volunteers.

Dick dreamed on a grand scale but delivered results on a human scale.  He favored small boats that could be single-handed over large vessels.  He favored deep, rich educational experiences that change lives over hosting crowds for brief visits with little lasting impact.  He favored handwritten letters packed with personality and inspiration – and a Wagnerian doodle if you were lucky – over mass mailings generated by the miracles of technology.

Ever the expansive thinker, even in the early days, Dick could be heard to say, “Today Lake Union, tomorrow the world!”  He wanted CWB to have the widest impact possible and do the most good for the most people.  The community efforts that Dick helped bring to life from Oregon to Virginia to the Caribbean to St. Petersburg, Russia, seem to signal that tomorrow has arrived.  Dick has left Seattle and the world a better place.

At Dick’s request, there will be no services. CWB is planning a tribute event to celebrate his life. Check our website and social media channels for upcoming details.

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