The South Street Seaport Museum family mourns the death of longtime Museum historian, educator, Melville scholar, and friend Jack Putnam. A memorial service will be held in Jack’s honor on Saturday, November 17, 10am, at St. Paul’s Chapel, 209 Broadway, New York, NY 10007. Reception to follow, between 1pm and 4pm, at the Seaport Museum’s Melville Gallery, 213 Water Street, New York, NY 10038.
In the words of Saul Austerlitz in The New York Times, Jack was the official historian and unofficial conscience of the museum. Over a span of decades, Jack was a champion of the Museum and its efforts. He put his shoulder to the wheel in myriad ways but in all respects was stalwart in support of the mission. Many will remember him best as Herman Melville himself, reciting “Chapter One: Loomings” from memory.
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off-then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
Jack spent his time at sea, and was as romantic about it as a fellow can get. But he also had a clear-eyed view of maritime New York and the critical importance of the port. He saw Albion’s Rise of New York Port as regular required reading for all at the South Street Seaport Museum.
In 2013, after Hurricane Sandy and when the Museum was closed to the public, Jack regularly attended our weekly staff meetings, despite having no official role at the Museum. The effort to bring back the museum he loved was what mattered to him, so he showed up. And he paid us the complement of praising our work. We were all buoyed by him, and his cheerful disposition will be sorely missed here.
We join with Jack’s many friends, colleagues, and shipmates in celebrating his life. We’re grateful that he spent so much of it with us.
John B. Putnam of Staten Island, NY, died Sunday, September 9, 2018. Jack was born July 2, 1936, in Boston, MA, to Philip Austin Putnam and Thelma Arthur Putnam. He grew up in Belmont, MA, attending Belmont Hill School and graduating from Belmont High School. His treasured memories of childhood included hiking in the White Mountains with his father and the parades and fireworks occasioned by his birthday, even though he eventually came to the disappointing realization that these were actually in celebration of July 4th. In 1958, he graduated from Harvard College, where he was a founding member of the Dudley House Drama Society and a member of the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps. Jack then served on active duty based at Naval Station Norfolk.
After completing his active duty, Jack embarked on a peripatetic period during which he and his wife, Dianne, and their infant daughter lived briefly in Belmont, then moved to New Jersey, where he worked as an editor at Princeton University Press. He left Princeton to spend eighteen months as editor at the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, then moved to Evanston, IL, to serve as managing editor at Northwestern University Press. In 1971, when Jack was appointed executive director of the Association of American University Presses and president of AAUP Services in New York City, the family moved to Wilton, CT. During his time at Northwestern and AAUP, Jack traveled in developing countries in Africa and behind the Iron Curtain in support of emerging writers, experiences that informed his view of the world for the rest of his life. He also served in the U.S. Navy Reserve, eventually receiving an honorable discharge as lieutenant commander. During the 1970s, Jack earned his private pilot’s license, fulfilling a lifelong dream.
Following his departure from AAUP, Jack found his true calling as a member of the South Street Seaport Museum community, where he served in many roles, including historian, educator, book store manager, model ship builder, Elderhostel coordinator/guide/lecturer. Jack called himself a storyteller. He was perhaps best known as Herman Melville, in whose guise he captivated audiences at the Seaport and at Mystic Seaport with his recitation from memory of “Chapter 1: Loomings” from Moby Dick. During his years at the Seaport, Jack made many transatlantic voyages on the Queen Elizabeth 2 and the Queen Mary 2, serving as Elderhostel guide to the maritime history of New York and southern England.
Jack’s storytelling gifts extended to the written word. Among his many accomplishments were a chapter he wrote and illustrated on whaling and whalecraft for the 1967 Norton Critical Edition ofMoby Dick, still includedin the current (3rd) edition, and “Voyage,” an essay published in Boats: An Anthology, alongsidepieces by E. Annie Proulx, Peter Matthiessen, Annie Dillard, Tim Cahill, and Raymond Carver.
Jack was an accomplished painter and photographer, spending countless hours in what he called documentation of the activity in New York Harbor from the window of his home at Bay Street Landing. Throughout his life, he used his talents as an artist and craftsman to produce guitars, small boats, furniture, carvings, wood inlays, engravings, kites, and wonderfully terrifying Halloween costumes and jack-o’-lanterns.
He Jack was a spiritual man, seeking solace in prayer and steadying himself through his faith during difficult times. He was a parishioner at Trinity Wall Street, where he served for many years as Friday lay reader.
In his last months, Jack found joy and comfort in contemplating the woods from his window at the Brielle, reading from the Bible,Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (appropriated from the Brielle’s library), and Robert Frost, and particularly in visits from his cherished friends and co-workers.
Jack is survived by his wife, Saundra Smith, of Manhattan; his children Sara, of Woodstock, CT; Jennifer, of Newburyport, MA; and Nathaniel, of Bangor, ME; his daughter-in-law, Virginia, and grandchildren Samuel, Margaret and John Putnam, of Bangor; grandson James Holland, of Newburyport; sisters Janet Macdonald and her husband, Laurence, of Belmont; and Joyce Curll and her husband, Daniel, of East Alstead, NH; and several nieces and nephews.
Donations in memory of Jack may be made to the South Street Seaport Museum at https://web.ovationtix.com/
ABOUT SOUTH STREET SEAPORT MUSEUM
The South Street Seaport Museum, located in the heart of the historic seaport district in New York City, preserves and interprets the history of New York as a great port city. Founded in 1967, and designated by Congress as America’s National Maritime Museum, the Museum houses an extensive collection of works of art and artifacts, a maritime reference library, exhibition galleries and education spaces, working nineteenth century print shops, and an active fleet of historic vessels that all work to tell the story of “Where New York Begins.”