A Maritime Legend

It all started with $45. When Thomas C. Gillmer, naval architect and recent inductee into the Annapolis Maritime Hall of Fame, recalls what put him on the path to nautical glory, he remembers his first boat, a boat built for the price of $45. With that small sum, Gillmer developed a passion for ships that would make him one of the most accomplished and revered individuals in the field of naval architecture.

Gillmer, 93, tells the story behind that first boat with such enthusiasm and liveliness that you could believe it happened only yesterday, not 80 years ago. One day while walking home from junior high school in his hometown in Ohio, he passed a store window where there was displayed a ship model with a card that read "Built by George Woodside." "I was entranced by that ship model," remembers Gillmer with a dreamy smile. "That evening at supper I told my father what I saw and he said, 'Well, I know George Woodside,' and later he took me to meet him." Woodside was a local ship builder and ex-sailor who built models as a hobby. Gillmer points to a lovely ship model encased in glass in the corner of the room where he sits. "That's one of George's models right there. He made his sails out of wood. You can see they have the shape of sails with the wind in them."

The craftsman developed a friendship with the curious lad and eventually built a boat for him. "My father hired George to build my first boat. It cost $45."

With his brand-new, custom-built boat and the friendship of his knowledgeable mentor, Gillmer's passion for boats blossomed. His passion brought him to Annapolis where he became a midshipman at the Naval Academy.

"I decided to go there when I was a Boy Scout. We took a trip to D.C. and also took a side trip to Annapolis. It was my first time here. We went to the Naval Academy for a tour, and I was walking with my friend Jimmy Bronburn. I turned to my friend and said, 'Jimmy, that's the school I'm going to go to.' I didn't say that's the school I want to go to, but that's the school I will go to." His determination paid off, and he graduated from the Naval Academy in the class of 1935.

After graduation he spent several years in the service but soon found himself drawn back to Annapolis when he joined the faculty at the Academy. During his time there, Gillmer began the Academy's naval architecture program. He says simply, "They didn't have a naval architecture course there. I thought they needed it." That little decision put the U.S. Naval Academy among a group of only three schools in the country with a naval architecture major. After he started it, people wondered why there wasn't one all along. Like that fateful day when he made the decision to become a midshipman, Gillmer's decision to start a naval architecture program was immediately followed by swift and effective action. Then an associate professor at the Academy, he trained the faculty, wrote the textbooks, and built the program with little help. "I didn't have anyone I could ask questions." Still, he succeeded in accomplishing his goal, and today the Academy's naval architecture department stands as one of the few in the country.

Though Gillmer says the Naval Academy hasn't changed much since the days when he was a professor, he remembers some of the little touches of modernization that surprised him. When he retired from the Naval Academy in 1967, it was around the time when the Academy started hiring female faculty members, which marked a major change. Then, on his very last day of class, computers were moved into the drawing classrooms in the naval architecture department. "When I was doing most of my own design work, I used a slide rule. But now computers have taken over." The biggest surprise, however, came after both those events when he saw the first female midshipmen admitted to the Academy. Although himself an innovator, Gillmer was not above showing surprise at modern innovations of others. When he heard about the female middies, he was astounded. "I said, 'I don't believe it.'"

His knowledge of the traditions of times past comes through in other ways as well, most notably in his work as a naval historian and replica shipbuilder. Gillmer has written books on the history of naval architecture and has researched shipbuilding from the majestic triremes of ancient Greece to the swift and elegant Baltimore clippers of the early 19th century. He considers the crowning achievement of his career to be his designs for the famous replicas of those ships, the Pride of Baltimore, which was destroyed by the weather, and the Pride of Baltimore II, which is still sailing today. Baltimore clippers were admired for their superior speed and agility, and they were used in the War of 1812 to help defeat British convoys. In the past, these dashing little topsail schooners weren't given the notoriety they deserved, but thanks to the attention-getting Pride and Pride II, they now receive their proper due.

Today, Gillmer lives a quiet life in Annapolis with his wife Ruth, but people are still amazed by the depth and breadth of all his professional contributions. Starting with a career that began when he was a young midshipman all those decades ago and reaching all the way to his induction into the Annapolis Maritime Hall of Fame on May 4 of this year, Tom Gillmer has been immersed in the boating community of Annapolis in myriad capacities. Though he's most celebrated as the designer of the Pride and Pride II, Gillmer's many achievements as a naval architect, writer, historian, Naval Academy professor and consultant have made him something of a local hero to many of the people of Annapolis and the nearby area. As a result, he has been the recipient of several awards and honors for his work, the Annapolis Maritime Hall of Fame being only the most recent.

Peg Wallace, chairman emeritus of the Annapolis Maritime Museum, was one of the people who chose Gillmer for the Hall of Fame. She says, "Mr. Gillmer is a remarkable man. He's a yacht designer who is highly respected by everyone in the field. He exemplifies the kind of person that we're proud to have in the Annapolis Maritime Hall of Fame because his impact on the Annapolis maritime community has been so great."

These days, Gillmer is enjoying his much-deserved retirement. When asked what he does with his time these days, he says with comic candor, "Nothing!" He has earned the right to sit by the window of his waterfront home and gaze out contentedly. "I'm over 90 years old. I have lived a long life and I have traveled far."

Debra Wilkinson is a recent graduate of St. John's College, where she read a selection of the great books of Western civilization. She plans to move to Korea to teach conversational English.


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