Otto Schoenstein was chosen by the East End Seaport Museum and Marine Foundation as the Person of Honor for its 25th Annual Maritime Festival. The following story is from a meeting this writer had with Mr. and Mrs. Schoenstein.
Little did he know when he designed and built his first boat at age 11 that the stage was being set for a lifelong adventure of craftsmanship and creations that would touch so many lives. And little did I know when I called him to talk about the Kayak Derby he started for the Maritime Festival 14 years ago I would end up spending a few hours getting the most interesting Greenport history lesson ever.
For those who don’t remember, or never knew, The East End Seaport Museum and Marine Foundation was formed 25 years ago by a tenacious group of Greenporters. This labor of love was created to rebuild the Long Beach Bar Lighthouse, or “Bug Light” as it’s called around here. Among that group was Otto Schoenstein. Otto built the lantern room, and at age 84 can still recount every detail of the construction. It’s truly a work of art.
Mr. and Mrs. Schoenstein’s home, a house Otto built, is filled with countless other works of art including hand crafted furniture, model ships (not built from a kit), a full-scale model of Bug Light and what I like to call “painted stories.”
One such story recounts, scene by scene, the adventures of 11-year-old Otto finding a working lantern on an abandoned boat and feeling as if he had scored a gem. Only later did he find out that the light was marking the night sky of a hazard to passing boats, and the removal of it caused the sinking of a tug! He smiles and shakes his head when he tells the tale of a naive younger Otto, saying “No one was hurt, of course.” The small lantern still graces the entry post of the Schoenstein home!
At every turn, I am suitably impressed with the accomplishments of this man. When the artistic mind is housed in an active craftsman, the possibilities are endless. He has proven that fact time and again. Where others see devastation, Otto sees opportunity. He sees a way to bring things to life. This artistry is reflected in the years of dedicated service he has given to the East End Seaport Museum, The Railroad Museum, The Wildlife Rescue, Cornell Cooperative, Greenport’s blacksmith shop, and countless other projects, not to mention the reconstruction of boat after boat.
When Otto shows me how he designed the kayaks for the Maritime Derby, his wife June gently chimes in and reminds him where certain pieces go. He has an exact scale model of the full-size boats, and June knows its construction as well as he does. I admire the knowing shorthand between them that comes from 62 years of marriage. June tells me “62 years and we have never had an argument.” Otto says, “Yes, but she wins all the fights.” As a kayak enthusiast, I am intrigued and impressed as Otto teaches me the construction and June pours the coffee. We eat cookies, laugh endlessly about the race videos, talk about kids, grandkids and great grandkids. I see the fabric of a well-woven family, the pride and joy of service and hard work. I fully understand the collective community praise about Otto Schoenstein at this moment. He truly is a living legend.
Keturah Hurst is a freelance consultant for many worthwhile organizations including The East End Seaport Museum and Marine Foundation as a special event coordinator.