Bay Journal

William Warner, author of ‘Beautiful Swimmers,’ dead at 88

  • By Kent Mountford on June 01, 2008
  • Comments are closed for this article.

By late 1976, I'd worked half a dozen years on Chesapeake Bay as a biologist, shuttling between my lab bench and small boats out on the mainstem or the Patuxent and Potomac Rivers. I'd gotten to know some local watermen and thought I had a good enough sense of the Bay to be a steward and spokesman for her future.

Then a colleague at the little field station where I worked told me I had to read this new book on Chesapeake Bay called "Beautiful Swimmers," a translation of the blue crab's taxonomic name, Callinectes sapidus. I soon discovered why the author, William Warner, won the Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction.

My copy is now shopworn, but on its yellowed jacket I long ago wrote that Consuela Hank's cover illustration reminded by of Geda, a skiff I then owned. This bond with traditional Bay watercraft was one of several parallels I later leaned I shared with Warner.

In 1983-when Warner's book had been out for 7 years-Virginia's George Mason University was host to the "Governor's Conference" where the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement was signed, obligating the region to restore the estuary to her former glory. The list of luminaries witnessing this event was legion and Warner was among them.

At the lunch break, he sat alone and I joined him, one on one. I found we had both attended college (some years apart) at neighboring schools, that we'd both grown up along New Jersey's coastal beaches and spent our youth sailing on Barnegat Bay.

Save for our mutual affection for Chesapeake, that is where the parallels end. His writing took him meteoric distances beyond anything I shall be able to do. "What a joy to have done this book with such success," I said, imagining him tossing off this literary victory with easy grace. He smiled and said, "Truth be known, my editor sent it back to me so many times, I got sick of it. Glad to see the end of it, frankly!"

Warner, who was born in New York City, attended Princeton University where he studied geology. He served on an aircraft carrier in World War II, then owned and operated a ski resort in Vermont with his brother, where he also taught high school. He joined the U.S. Information Agency where he worked for nine years before joining the Peace Corps for two years. He then joined the Smithsonian Institution, where he was instrumental in starting Smithsonian magazine as well as the annual Folk Life Festival on the Mall. He retired in 1978.

An avid sailor, Warner became fascinated with the Bay, which he described as having "benign and beautiful waters," as well as the watermen who worked those waters. He was nearing 60 when he published "Beautiful Swimmers," in 1976, a time when 9,000 full-time watermen still worked the Bay. The book, which novelist Larry McMurtry described as having "grace, wit and clarity, on top of a real strength of feeling" has never been out of print.

Warner went on to complete his second book, "Distant Water: The Fate of the North Atlantic Fisherman" in 1983. He also wrote "At Peace With All Their Neighbors," a history of the Catholic Church in D.C., which was published in 1994, and "Into the Porcupine Cave and Other Odysseys: Adventures of an Occasional Naturalist" a collection of essays, in 1999.

Warner's end came on April 18 at his home in Washington D.C., the result of complications from Alzheimer's disease-a cruel blow for one who led an intellectually rich life. He was 88.

The hidden blessing may be that he could not witness the failure of succeeding politicians and citizens to act decisively for the Bay nor the present decline of his beloved commercial crabbing way of life.

About Kent Mountford

Dr. Kent Mountford is senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kent Mountford

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