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Unique gravestone honors Gloucester boat builder

By Gail Mccarthy
Gloucester Daily Times / June 3, 2012
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GLOUCESTER, Mass.—Three years after the death of master boat builder Phil Bolger, his wife talked, on the eve of the anniversary, about working through her grief.

Part of that process, she says, has been designing her own project -- a unique gravestone to commemorate his extraordinary life of design and innovation.

Susanne Altenburger, who spent 15 years as Bolger's wife and partner in his internationally acclaimed boat design company, shared the story behind the headstone design that includes a dozen boats, an engraved illustration of Bolger, and 650 letters -- all memorialize his achievements, mentors and highlights of his life.

"Doing the stone got me off my couch of grief," Altenburger said,

Born in Gloucester on Dec. 3, 1927, Bolger took his own life on May 24, 2009, at the age of 81 when he knew he was facing serious cognitive losses, Altenburger said, adding that Bolger lived life on his own terms, and planned to leave on his own terms.

"He lived a life of intellectual freedom and he decided to leave life the same way," she said of her husband, who is buried at Dolliver Memorial Cemetery in West Gloucester.

Bolger, who ranked among the world's most prolific and versatile boat designers, also wrote several books.

Bolger designed 680 boats, ranging from the world's smallest dinghy, "the folding schooner," to the 179-foot tall ship HMS Rose, which was featured in the 2003 movie "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." It is now on display at the San Diego Maritime Museum.

After her husband's death, Altenburger said two things kept her going. One was a letter of interest from the U.S. Navy to continue with the work the couple had started on a more fuel-efficient vessel; the second, she said, was work on the headstone.

"I felt so awful. I see how people croak from a broken heart," she said. "It does take a massive toll. I thought there was simply no other way of dealing with the issue but to deal with it head on.

"You can dope yourself out of it, but there's no way around it," she added. "One way of coping is to discuss him. He is a son of Gloucester, born at Addison Gilbert Hospital. He grew up down at Montgomery's boat yard (on Ferry Street), 400 yards from his home. This is where it started."

Altenburger said she believed there should be a reminder of his existence, his work and his art beyond the books in the library.

"He spent his life reading books. And as he gained some notoriety, he wrote about boats and he began to speak farther and wider."

At the age of 72, McGraw-Hill publishers approached him to write a book. At 74, she recalled, the U.S. Navy approached him for his expertise in solving design challenges.

"That's worth remembering. Someone thought to reach out to Gloucester, Massachusetts, to find out what Bolger would have to say," said Altenburger.

In fact, in 1990, Altenburger, who was living in Boston, came to Gloucester to seek him out.

"I was on a day trip and I had read all his books," she recalled of the man who was 31 years her senior. "He was amused at how many books of his I had photocopied from the library because they were not easy to come by in those days."

The two would chuckle at the implausibility of their growing relationship.

"We talked about boats and design and politics. It's a peculiar form of courtship," she recalled. "But we did have our fair share of disagreements and spats and not being terribly sweet with each other. But there was always this understanding that we would see each other again. He'd say, `Make sure you come back.'

"He was 65," she said, "when he asked me to join him."

Altenburger said that death is a subject that is not talked about enough openly.

"I was quite unprepared for it, although intellectually you know what to expect," she said. "Everyone's experience is so different. But what combines all these experiences is the inevitability of having to grieve and let it take you where it will -- as long as it's not self destructive. That's when you have to actively intervene.

"Grieving is a personal thing and should be respected," she said. "There is no reason to hide what it does to you."

With grief at her side, Altenburger set out to design the memorial to her husband.

She used the face of the gravestone as a "canvas," wanting to immortalize the life of her loved one with more than a few words or a symbol.

She hand-delivered the full-scale print of the design to B&B Monumental Engravers in Barre, Vt.,

In addition to the array of boats, there is a hand-etched image of Bolger crafted from a photograph on black polished granite that was inserted into a recess cut into the headstone. The artist was Eddie Epstein, who had built two of Bolger's designs, the Light Dory and Bobcat.

Altenburger said she wanted to choose a variety of boats he had designed, which include a dory, a Micro, and of course, a schooner because it is part of Gloucester's heritage.

"These are all distinctive flavors of him," she said. "These show the diversity of his thinking and design talent. Phil's life-long letterhead design preferences guided the overall layout of the stone. His boat profiles always point to the right, with the largest design located on the left to leave room for name and address on the right side."

In the wake of losing her best friend and mentor, Altenburger continues on with her work, and often will bring a jar of buttercups, his favorite flower, to adorn the gravestone, as she remembers the full life he lived.

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