Cars were pulled into the snow banks on Narragansett Boulevard. It was still early, the cold gray dawn casting a monotone scene, or was it smoke? Heavy snowflakes fell. Hoses snaked down the step short section of Shaw Avenue that leads down to Edgewood Yacht Club. Spectators had turned out; camera crews were on the scene; firefighters were spraying smoldering hot spots.
Like other members of the media, I heard how the blaze lit the neighborhood and of fears that flying embers might ignite homes overlooking the Victorian era clubhouse that had survived some of the worst of hurricanes. Fed by wooden decking, varnished paneling and shingled roofing and siding the fire burned with intensity. The destruction was complete, even some of the pilings that had supported the clubhouse had been consumed.
Bill Plumb was there. He wasn’t smiling as he usually does.
“This is history,” he said of the loss of the building and what had been a part of the community for more than a century. He stood silently. It was an emotional moment.
What do you say when someone has just lost a close friend? It doesn’t seem right to be asking questions.
Yet what happens next is part of the story. I needed to ask if Bill thought this was the end. Could the club continue operations and, in the long run, could it rebuild under today’s coastal regulations and would there be the resources to do so?
We stood watching the smoke curl from what remained of the decking. I needed to get to those questions. It was Wednesday, a deadline day and I wanted the story for the following day’s Beacon.
Bill wasn’t wallowing in the enormity of the tragedy. Some things, like the trophies with the engraved names of boats and skippers dating back 100 years ago, were gone for good. Nothing had been pulled from the fire that was called in at 3:42 a.m. on Jan. 12 2011. Everything was lost.
Bill knew that, but he was looking at the positives. The docks in front of the clubhouse were there; the boats that had been hauled for winter storage and lined up in the parking lot had been spared. And then there was the small cottage where we stood overlooking the scene.
The greater foundation for the reconstruction, as Bill recognized, was the community that loved the club. He understood that. This wasn’t the end.
When I learned Bill had lost his fight in his battle against cancer on May 30, the image of him that morning immediately came to mind.
Even before the fire was out, he was thinking of preserving the community he was so much a part of.
The second image of Bill ironically also had to do with fire, only this time he was out to set a fire. As a staunch member of the Gaspee Days and an assistant harbormaster, Bill took on the job of transporting the mayor and Gaspee officials to set the Gaspee alight and close out the celebration. Starting the fire, even though the metal cutout of the ship was mounted in a pool of kerosene, wasn’t always easy. Bill and his crew often made more than one attempt with burning newspaper only to have it blown out. Spectators cheered when finally, the flames spread to the bed sheet sails.
Bill’s role in Gaspee Days was recognized more than once during this year’s celebration. Jack Hutson, who often was Bill’s arson accomplice, remembered their efforts to burn the ship. Jack wasn’t alone in pausing to think of what Bill has done for the community.
George Shuster Jr. who had called to let me know of his passing, sent me an email from him and his wife Stephanie Van Patten. Both hold positions at the yacht club, George as vice commodore and Stephanie as president of the sailing school.
“It is easy to conclude that without Bill, EYC and ESS [Edgewood Sailing School] would not exist as we know them today,” they wrote. “Beyond simply serving the yacht club in official leadership roles, including Commodore, Bill sustained the club and sailing school through good times and tough times. Perhaps more than anything else, Bill served as a guiding spirit of the club for decades, personally selecting, encouraging, and advising those who have led the club over that time. Bill understood instinctively that boating is a vehicle for self-confidence, self-reflection, and self-improvement, and from Bill we inherit institutions that allow us to seek out these virtues.”
In the darkest times Bill, like the sailor he was, stayed the course. And on those occasions when the community comes together to celebrate, he was there as crew if not at the helm.