To all who knew John Gaspie in the lighthouse community, he was affectionately known as “Keeper John” for a variety of reasons that included his Coast Guard service (1939-46), volunteer work at the Maine Lighthouse Museum, and most of all, for his friendship that far surpassed the brilliance of the guiding lights he cared so much about.
“Keeper John” passed away on at the age of 91 on October 18, 2010 following a brief illness. I was fortunate to have had the privilege of working with John Gaspie during 2007-08 when he served as a docent at the Maine Lighthouse Museum. It was during this time that I learned of his maritime connections with the U.S. Coast Guard and lighthouses.
Better yet, a lasting friendship was kindled between us over this two-year period. This special opportunity was something that was hardly confined to one person though, or even a small group of people, for that matter. No, John Gaspie befriended all who worked with him at the Museum, which helped to elevate his universal appeal to others far beyond his accomplishments in the maritime community.
When it came to his service, John and modesty went hand-in-hand. He did not make it a practice to tell people about his service or experiences, yet I could not resist asking him about such matters. I recall talking with John one day in the Maine Lighthouse Museum’s Kenneth N. Black Exhibition Hall and asking him about his Coast Guard service.
In addition to serving at Coast Guard lifeboat and surfside stations, I was surprised to learn that John also spent time as a relief lightkeeper at the legendary, wave-swept Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse off Cohasset, Massachusetts, during a two-week stint in 1940.
As our conversation danced from topic to topic, at one point I asked John if he witnessed any storms while aboard Minot’s Ledge Light.
His reply was, “No, Bob, my time on the lighthouse was pretty uneventful – nothing out of the ordinary occurred.” He did go on to say, “I do remember the rush of the flood tide each day as it pressed against the granite structure. Aside from the noise this caused, you could also feel the power of the water as it rushed by. I can only imagine what storm seas would have sounded and felt like.”
John concluded his brief recounting of time spent on Minot’s Ledge by stating, “I was happy to get off the lighthouse once my relief arrived – and I never did go back.”
Sixty-seven years after leaving Minot’s Ledge, John did return to the lights, this time as a volunteer docent at Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland. Instead of having one light to watch over, John was thrilled to be a part of the team of volunteers who had the opportunity to care for a plethora of Fresnel lenses and other lights of all shapes and sizes. He also relished the opportunities to share our nation’s lighthouse heritage with the visiting public.
During his tenure at the Museum, John had the opportunity to learn how to properly care for and clean Fresnel lenses, thanks in part to spending time with conservator extraordinaire, Kathleen McCormick, of St. Augustine Lighthouse.
John and Sallie Leighton, a fellow Museum volunteer, not only mastered the proper techniques for keeping priceless Fresnel lenses clean during their training, they also teamed up thereafter to carry out their duties on many volunteer days at the Maine Lighthouse Museum.
As a lighthouse preservationist, I took great satisfaction in walking through the Museum and seeing John and Sallie at their meticulous craft – and wow did the lenses sparkle after they were finished with their work each day!
All of us who work in the field of lighthouses understand that our time associated with this labor of love is not forever. John keenly understood this notion and made the most of each day that he was blessed with to help preserve the lights and their history.
In many ways, John may have thought it was a privilege to work with the lights, but the reality is that the real privilege was for all of us who got to know and love “Keeper John” as a person.
“Keeper John” was such a dear friend to all, it can hardly be a coincidence that the one lighthouse he served at as a keeper – Minot’s Ledge, flashes forth each night the “one-four-three” characteristic that has come to be beloved by the public as the “I Love You” light.
“One-four-three” seems to aptly sum up how John’s friends feel about him – and this feeling has only grown stronger with the passing of our friend – “Keeper John.”
In honor of “Keeper John’s” time on Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse, this poem by Alexander C. Corkum seems appropriate…
By Alexander C. Corkum, 1906
Out where the waves of the ocean
Thunder and break in their wrath
Here on the outermost danger,
Near to the mariner’s path,
Standing on treacherous footing,
Towering over the sea
Flash I my signal of warning
Here thro’ the varying seasons,
Gray weather-beaten I stand,
Guiding the course of the seaman,
Cautiously making the land;
And to all people who pass me,
Seeing the “Land of the Free,”
Flashing a welcome and warning
Wrapped in a mantle of darkness,
Lashed by the wind and the wave
Swaying beneath their encounters,
Often their furies I brave;
And by the tears of the tempest,
Dimmed tho’ my radiance be,
Still I keep flashing my warnings
Mist often mingles with darkness,
Pall-like upon me they close,
Hiding my treacherous neighbors,
Whom I am here to expose;
Then with my voice I’m proclaiming
Dangers the eye cannot see,
While I keep flashing my warnings
Winds that have fiercely assailed me
Whisper their gentle regret,
Waves that besieged me in anger
’Round me remorsefully fret,
Always impassive I greet them,
Duty is sacred to me;
So I keep flashing my warnings