Ken Black - Still Red, Right, Returning to Our Hearts

By Bob Trapani, Jr.

Ken Black, "Mr. Lighthouse"
Photo by Peter Ralston

Ken Black "Mr. Lighthouse"
1923-2007

For many people along the mid-coast of Maine, as well as countless others within the national lighthouse community and throughout the United States Coast Guard, the late CWO4 Kenneth N. Black (USCG Ret.) was considered a dear friend, respected leader and a rare legend in his own time.

Therefore it's hard to believe that exactly one year ago today on January 28, 2007, Ken Black took leave of all of us, "crossing the bar" peacefully following 83 amazing years of life.

Known affectionately as "Mr. Lighthouse," Ken was the founder of the Maine Lighthouse Museum and its world-class collection of lighthouse and maritime artifacts. And just like the breathtaking Fresnel lenses that shine bright inside the Museum today, he remains a true luminary for America's lighthouse heritage and the time-honored service of his beloved Coast Guard.

Earlier this month I found myself walking down the hallway inside the Maine Lighthouse Museum, seeking to peer out one of the windows overlooking historic Rockland Harbor. My goal was to bask in a brief distraction from the workday at the Museum.

In the process of enjoying the delightful glimpse of the seascape, I was also reminded of Ken Black, which is not an uncommon occurrence at the Museum; such was his profound impact on the organization.

At that very moment, I was thankful that despite his physical passing, the passage of time has been unable to dull the spirit and memory of "Mr. Lighthouse" for all those who fondly recall his friendship or happen to visit the Maine Lighthouse Museum today.

USCG Cutter Abbie Burgess
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

USCGC ABBIE BURGESS
(WLM 553), a 175-foot coastal buoy
tender stationed in Rockland, Maine

Still peering out the Museum's window, I then noticed a large commercial ship transiting north past Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse and up West Penobscot Bay to Searsport, Maine. This scene, though silently playing out on the seascape before me, seemed to "speak" in some manner of Ken Black's legacy, so I focused my gaze more intently on the harbor's surroundings.

The reflective experience was revealing in a vivid way. As time and the tides march on, constantly altering everything in their wake, it was amazing to notice how much of Ken's world has remained unchanged over the past year, a fact best epitomized by the rich maritime heritage that continues to thrive in and around Rockland Harbor.

Ken knew this heritage better than most - including the great pride that exists for the four United States Coast Guard units that call the City of Rockland home port, the harbor's two iconic lighthouses and numerous aids to navigation that help guide mariners on their way each day, as well as the working waterfront, consisting of fishermen, lobstermen, recreational boaters and various commercial interests.

Yet as stunning as the harbor is during the day, revealing the many vibrant colors and details of Ken's maritime loves in Rockland Harbor, I recalled a statement Ken was fond of saying when talking about his lighthouse museum. "Every thing that can work, does work," he would say, referencing specifically the plethora of lenses and lights he had on exhibit.

Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse guides
mariners into Rockland Harbor, with Ken's
wife Dot leading the project to
preserve the iconic beacon

Ken's sentiments about lights that operate at the Museum coincide nicely with the functioning aids to navigation in Rockland Harbor during the realm of nightfall, for that is when the harbor's sea of lights come alive, "winking & blinking" their message of safety to all mariners within sight of their guiding beams of white and red.

A nightly glance over a darkened seascape will reveal Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse faithfully flashing its rhythmic gleam seaward every 5 seconds to safeguard mariners seeking the protective harbor of refuge inside Rockland Breakwater.

Ken would no doubt have said, "Of course."

The steady white beam of nearby Owls Head Lighthouse also shines forth from its 100=foot perch overlooking West Penobscot Bay and Rockland Harbor, while its powerful fog horn continues to sound a doleful audible warning when low visibility threatens the region's waters.

If asked about the reliability of Owls Head Light thanks to the watchfulness of the U.S. Coast Guard, Ken may very well have quipped, "No question about it."

Owls Head Lighthouse
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Owls Head Lighthouse, overlooking
Rockland Harbor and West
Penobscot Bay, Maine

Even the two lighted buoys in Rockland Harbor - numbers 2 and 4, which join their lighthouse brethren each night in an unmistakable silent language of the sea, still flash their red guiding lights to mark the safe channel for vessels returning to port.

"As they should," is what Ken might very well have chimed in.

One year after Ken's passing, the lights in Rockland Harbor still shine on as bright as ever, reminding us of their benevolent mission that "Mr. Lighthouse" cared deeply about, a mission and its history that he spent the last quarter-century of his life working to preserve.

Moving thoughtwise back to Rockland Harbor, as nightfall gives way to daylight at the dawn of each new day, keen observations upon the harbor's waters will reveal the United States Coast Guard consistently coming and going as they work to perform their multi-missions with unsurpassed skill and dedication.

"Just like they did when I was commander of Station Rockland," Ken might have proudly noted. "Semper Paratus" - Always Ready!

Speaking of the U.S. Coast Guard and the four Rockland units, which include Station Rockland and the three black-hulled cutters, ABBIE BURGESS, THUNDER BAY and TACKLE, Ken's great pride for the USCG stems from his own 32 years of decorated service in the Coast Guard, retiring as a Chief Warrant Officer and commander of USCG Station Rockland in 1973.

Finally, I thought about how proud Ken would be that his loving wife Dot Black has persevered through this difficult time period, and yet during this time, has been non-stop in her determined efforts to carry on with his dream at the Maine Lighthouse Museum and with the American Lighthouse Foundation.

Main channel lighted buoy #2 in Rockland Harbor
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Main channel lighted buoy # 2 inside
Rockland Harbor that marks 14-foot shoal
and flashes a red light every four seconds

Dot serves on the Maine Lighthouse Museum's board of directors and is president of the American Lighthouse Foundation, which is responsible for the preservation of twenty historic lighthouses throughout New England, including Rockland Breakwater and Owls Head lights in Ken's "backyard" within the harbor.

I think we all know what Ken would say about Dot's lighthouse preservation work. He most certainly would have summed his admiration up for her with one word - "Wow!"

One year later on January 28, 2008, the spirit of "Mr. Lighthouse" lives on and the lights he loved - the functioning lighthouses and lighted buoys, as well as the historical lenses at his Museum, are "watching properly."

The tears of sadness we once shed over Ken Black's passing have given way to tears of joy for having had the opportunity to share in the blessings of his friendship and his passionate connections for the sea that continue to shine on inside the Maine Lighthouse Museum.

I'll borrow a navigational mantra in closing and say that Ken Black is still very much "red, right, returning" to our hearts - now and forever.

Ken & Dot Black
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Ken and Dot Black...Dot continues to carry on
Ken's dream with her passionate lighthouse preservation work