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."
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.