Saturday, 2:15 PM
Obituary: Red Slavit, Haverhill harbormaster, salty storyteller
By Bryan Marquard, Globe Staff
Year after year of daring rescues would give anyone a lifetime of tales to tell, but Red Slavit knew storytelling was an art, even with the rich material his life provided.
Sometimes as he spun out a story "my mother would always say, 'That's not true, that's not true,' " their daughter Pat Kvinlaug said, laughing, "and he'd say, 'You know what, if it's true, it's not going to be exciting.' "
Excitement, however, was rarely lacking in Mr. Slavit's life, from his years as a teenage pilot to the quarter century he spent as harbormaster in Haverhill, regularly pulling people out of the Merrimack River. During the past few weeks Mr. Slavit's health failed rapidly, his daughter said, and he died Friday in Hannah Duston Healthcare Center in Haverhill. He was 86 and had lived all his life in Haverhill, a city where his legend loomed large.
For decades he ran the Haverhill Riverside Airport, flying everything from helicopters to seaplanes. And he didn't just leave home at all hours to save the lives of men, women, and children. Once, his children said, he rescue a cow from the Merrimack River.
Then there were the tour boats he owned and piloted, including the Merrimack Queen -- a paddleboat that glided through the waves as Captain Red Slavit spoke on a microphone, invoking the rhymes of poets and the deeds of pirates. In his running historical narrative, Haverhill may not have been the center of the universe, but it was darned close.
Last week, the City Council voted to name the city docks after Mr. Slavit, and Mayor James J. Fiorentini called the former harbormaster "truly a legend in the City of Haverhill," according to a transcript of the meeting prepared by the mayor's chief of staff, Andrew Herlihy.
"No one, in the history of Haverhill, has done more to promote the Merrimack River than Red Slavit," Fiorentini said.
Born in Haverhill, William J. Slavit was a redheaded kid who spent as much time as possible on the river and at the airport.
"Even as a young child -- 10, 12 years old -- he would go down to the beach with his friends," said Kvinlaug, who lives in Bradford. "They'd thumb down to the beach, he'd get a rowboat, and they'd go out. He was always on the sea -- always."
The only exception was when he was up in the air. Legend has it -- and with Mr. Slavit, there are plenty of legends -- that as a teenager he liked to swoop under the span known as the Groveland Bridge, letting the wheels of his plane brush the water.
One day while giving someone a sightseeing ride, he had to pull up at the last minute and fly over the bridge. Then the plane lost altitude and crashlanded near where the Haverhill High School football team was playing a game. Neither passenger nor pilot was hurt, his children said.
"He walked away with a scratch over his eye," said his daughter.
During World War II, Mr. Slavit served in the Coast Guard and was posted in Maine and San Francisco, where he was on shore patrol duty. A photo of him in uniform, sailor's cap cocked at a rakish angle, is on a Myspace.com page devoted to Mr. Slavit. He is also featured in YouTube videos, some shot while he narrated river trips on the Merrimack Queen.
After the war Mr. Slavit returned to Haverhill and did a lot of everything. His father had run a movie theater and a dinner on Washington Street. Mr. Slavit was expansively entrepreneurial as well, his daughter said, selling cars and heavy equipment, opening the airport and a marina alongside the Merrimack River, flying planes and helicopters.
"He didn't go to college, you know, but he's probably more educated than many you'll meet," she said.
Said his son Tim of Haverhill, who learned everything from engine mechanics to piloting aircraft as an assistant harbormaster at his father's side: "I couldn't have gotten a better education at Harvard University."
Mr. Slavit married Evelyn Brunelle 65 years ago. "She was his friend's girlfriend and he swooped her up," their daughter said. Characteristically, she added, Mr. Slavit and the spurned suitor remained friends for life.
Along with serving as harbormaster, Mr. Slavit got a hankering for elective office when he was in his 60s, and ran for mayor a handful of times from 1981 until 2007. In earlier attempts he polled more than 1,000 votes and was a top finisher. Last year, with 67 votes, he didn't make it past the preliminary balloting.
"You know what some people said? We love you, but we don't want to vote for you. We don't want you to be mayor. It wouldn't be good for you," he told the Globe last year, shrugging off the defeat.
The interview took place in the A-1 Deli on Merrimack Street, where Mr. Slavit like to have lunch and where on one wall hangs a photo of him next to a harbormaster rescue craft.
"We miss him very much," Paula Meidanis, whose husband is an owner of the eatery, said today. "Red would sit at the same table and tell us stories about saving people's lives. He was just the nicest, most genuine person I ever met."
No one kept track of how many lives Mr. Slavit saved, though by some estimates the number is in the hundreds. The calls came at midday and midnight, in the heat of summer and the chill of winter. When the phone rang, he didn't hesitate.
"He used to say every person he saved was a free ticket to heaven," his son said. "He saved people in World War II and kept saving them all up through his life."
In addition to his wife, his daughter Pat, and his son Tim, Mr. Slavit leaves four other daughters, Kathleen Smith of Haverhill, Betty of Atkinson, N.H., Donna of Portsmouth, N.H., and Diann Bayliss of Ipswich; three other sons, William Jr., Richard, and James, all of Haverhill; seven granddaughters; six grandsons; and three great-granddaughters.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Wednesday in St. John the Baptist Church in Haverhill. Burial will be in Linwood Cemetery in Haverhill.
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