Coast Guard veteran was "Mr. Lighthouse"

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Kenneth Black, who is credited with starting the lighthouse preservation movement, has died.

Kenneth Black, who is credited with starting the lighthouse preservation movement, has died.

Kenneth Black, a retired Coast Guard chief warrant officer whose single-handed efforts rescued rare and priceless artifacts from doomed lighthouses across the country and whose humble style drew hundreds to the lighthouse preservation movement, died Jan. 28 in Rockport, Maine. He was 82.

His collection of lighthouse machinery and equipment included some items that weighed tons and others that now sell at auction for tens of thousands of dollars.

“He never did anything for personal gain or personal recognition,” says Black’s friend Tim Harrison, president of the American Lighthouse Foundation. “Everything he did was because it was the right thing to do. He thought it was important to save these things for a future generation.”

“He did two things,” says Ted Panayotoff, volunteer coordinator at the MaineLighthouseMuseum in Rockland, which Black started. “He saved the artifacts, but he also started the [lighthouse preservation] movement.”

The Rockland museum, crammed with pieces Black collected, claims to house the nation’s largest collection of lighthouse lenses, ranging from a behemoth 3,000-pound, 8-foot-tall second order lens to an almost miniature sixth order lens. Many were borrowed by Black from the Coast Guard when the agency was closing down lighthouses. There also are foghorns and lighthouse timing mechanisms from the predigital era of gears and cams, lighthouse keepers’ uniforms and log books, and exhibits of artifacts from lightships that anchored offshore as aids to navigation and others of equipment used by the lifesaving service.

Black’s passion for lighthouses began during his 32-year career in the Coast Guard. “He was going to join the Navy, and his brother told him there was no ketchup in the Navy,” says Harrison. “He said: ‘Then I’m going to join the Coast Guard.’ ”

His service during World War II included action in the invasion of Okinawa. Following the war he served at stations in the Great Lakes and New England. Among his commands were the Point Allerton, Mass., Life Boat Station, commander of a lightship and of an ice breaker, group commander of the Quoddy Head Coast Guard Station in Lubec, Maine, and commander of the Coast Guard Cutter Ojibwa. His last assignment was as commanding officer of the Rockland Coast Guard Station.

“He was a great name dropper to open up a door or get whatever he wanted,” says Harrison. “As a chief warrant officer, he became friends with many of the admirals. He was the first guy to decorate a lighthouse [for the holidays],” when he was group commander at West Quoddy. “The admiral called him up and said, ‘I understand you have decorated the lighthouse.’ He said, ‘Do you have a problem with that?’ ”

Later, “[Black] got an admiral to name him curator of the Northeast district when he had put in 30 years,” Harrison says. “They kept him on for two more years,” until 1973, and Black, who as early as the 1960s had started a small lighthouse exhibit when he was commander at Boston Lighthouse, began collecting artifacts in earnest.

“He started saving this stuff before it became fashionable,” Harrison says.

“He was probably the origin of the lighthouse preservation movement in the United States,” says Panayotoff. “All these various regional, statewide, national groups and groups associated with individual lighthouses could probably trace their history back to some of the initial things that Mr. Black did.” The exhibit he created in Rockland at his retirement “continued to grow on almost a daily basis. It went to a large building that had been a private home,” Panayotoff says. “The city kind of gave him access to that building, and the collection continued to grow.”

Black became an evangelist for lighthouse enthusiasts. “He started a newsletter that had subscribers all across the United States, before the Internet and e-mail. How did he do it?” asks Harrison.

Harrison also describes Black as a sort of Lone Ranger, prowling the coast in his convertible during summer months and his big Cadillac in the cold months, rescuing lighthouse artifacts that otherwise would have been trashed. Harrison says the lighthouse preservation movement started nationally in 1989.

“Some [of the lighthouses] had been saved — St. Augustine or Portland Head Light,” he says. “By that time, the artifacts were gone. A lot of the lenses had been thrown out and smashed. The radios, beacon control things, the government just threw it out. It was trash. And Ken saved what he could. The artifacts that he amassed, some of them were one-of-a-kind. He was saving the jewels of the lighthouses.”

Black’s greatest disappointment came when he tried to rescue a fog bell tower from a lighthouse in Marshall Point, Maine, Harrison says. He loaded the tower onto a flatbed truck, but there was no way to get it through the gate at the end of the driveway. In 2005 Black’s collection was moved into the new MaineLighthouseMuseum on the Rockland waterfront (www.mainelighthousemuseum.com).

The man lighthouse enthusiasts called Mr. Lighthouse has been honored with every award available in the Coast Guard. For his lighthouse endeavors he was given the Coast Guard Public Service Commendation, the Harbour Lights Lifetime Achievement award, the Lighthouse Digest Beacon of Light award, and the American Lighthouse Foundation’s Keeper of the Light Award, among others. At the dedication in 2006 of the CWO Kenneth Black Exhibition Hall at the MaineLighthouseMuseum, he was presented with a special honor by the Foundation for Coast Guard History for his preservation of lighthouse artifacts. In the same ceremony, Black was presented with special commendations from the Maine state legislature, Maine state senate, the governor of Maine, the City of Rockland, Lighthouse Digest magazine, various Coast Guard units, the U.S Congress, and President George W. Bush.

He is survived by his wife, Dorothy, president of the Friends of the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse (www.rocklandlighthouse.com).