Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On the death of David Stick

It would be nearly another half century before I met David Stick, but when I was a boy and first got my hands on his "Graveyard of the Atlantic: Shipwrecks of the North Carolina Coast," I gobbled up every word he wrote, every description of the rugged inlets and treacherous shoals along our coastline, every sail plan from skysails and royals down to the spanker on a four mast bark.

Those days spent with his book -- and the wonderful map with exotic coastal features such as Caffey's Inlet and Swash Inlet, now closed, and Corncake Inlet -- kept alive in memory and song by Bland Simpson and his Red Clay Ramblers colleagues -- carried me away to another place in time.

And the names! There were Chicamacomico and Big and Little Kinnakeet, where lifesaving stations operated. And the tales of derring-do -- "Each Man a Hero", "From Sail to Steam" and "The Romance is Gone" -- lamenting the passing of an era because steamships probably meant the last of the big Outer Banks shipwrecks -- fired my imagination and made me want to go to sea. Years later my wife and I spent as much time as we could spare along the coast, sailing to some of the places Stick wrote about and gunkholing in our fishing boat in others.

I finally met David Stick on a breezy December afternoon in 2003 shortly before the centennial celebration of the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. A mutual acquaintance was showing me around, and drove me over to Stick's house among the huge old live oaks and wispy Spanish moss of the maritime forest back near the sound side of the island. He was gracious, professing to remember my writings from my days on the old Greensboro Daily News years earlier, and inquiring about the paper's editor Bill Snider and a few other giants of an earlier day in Tar Heel journalism.

Stick, by the way, was not a native North Carolinian, but you can't tell that from his writing. He came to us as a boy from New Jersey, and served as a combat correspondent in World War II in the Marines along the way. But he was otherwise as thoroughly North Carolinian as it's possible to be.

When I read of his death Sunday at age 89 it saddened me to know that such a productive historian and folklorist of the N.C. coast had passed away. His 11 books are a living memorial to the depth and breadth of his knowledge. He wrote among other things "Graveyard of the Atlantic" (1952), "The Outer Banks of North Carolina" (1958), "The Ash Wednesday Storm" (1987), "Roanoke Island: The Beginnings of English America" (1983) and edited my favorite, "An Outer Banks Reader" (1998). The latter is a marvelous compendium of other folks' writings about the Banks, from early explorers to contemporary times. Writers include Rachel Carson, who did groundbreaking environmental work in the marshes near Beaufort, John Dos Passos, who wrote about “The Campers at Kitty Hawk” named Wilbur and Orville, and Observer writer Elizabeth Leland's piece "The Crab Picker" from her own book "Our Vanishing Coast" in 1992.

The summer reading season is upon us and there are a lot of good books to read, but if you haven't read David Stick in a while, or ever, you can't go wrong with “An Outer Banks Reader.”


Jim Utter said...

As a longtime visitor to the Outer Banks, I have many times buried myself in David's work to help fully understand the history and the mysteries that still engulf North Carolina's coast. He was a gem.

Parker Chesson said...

David will be missed. I had the pleasure of serving with him on the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission, where we were both charter members. Our work on this commission started in 1974 - and since that time we have been friends and in frequent contact. I last spoke with David about two months ago and, though weak, he still had his sharp sense of humor. He was truly a unique person, one who insisted on honesty and accuracy, whether in writing or dealing with politicians. Our world, and particularly our coast, is better because he walked among us.

Terri said...

Mr David will be missed, but more than that, he will be remembered. I lived on his street as a child and I remember him the most. He would watch us swim across the sound from his dock to the very small beach behind the theatre. He opened his home and his heart for us. He helped my love of books by allowing me to roam his library, while my friends played in his game room downstairs. What a man, and what a full life he lived!!

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Unknown said...

David was wonderfully generous. In 1975, David and Walter Davis were members of the first N.C. Coastal Resources Commission. When the full commission and staff would gather for breakfast or lunch, David and Walter would quietly slip $100 bills under their plates to be shared by the wait staff and cooks.

This often brought tears to young mothers and college students working in the 20 coastal counties of North Carolina. David and Walter set high standards for the rest of us.