Remembering Len Anderson

This year’s Georgetown Wooden Boat Show is dedicated to our irreplaceable friend, Len Anderson. But while his place as No. 1 brainstormer and dream achiever is forever secure, we will honor his memory by following the examples he set for us.

We’re going to roll the tape now, the invisible tape that Len Anderson advised others about.

“Everything you do goes onto an invisible tape,” he’d say, “and you can never erase anything on that tape. You have no control over when that tape is going to be played back. Good or bad.”

Len could possibly (probably) be sipping a glass of Scotch as he offered his insight, but it wasn’t the kind of dime store wisdom found in the bottom of a cheap bottle of booze. It was his version of the Golden Rule, and he embodied it, and many others benefitted.

Some folks were lucky enough to know Len and appreciate his wit, while others in the Georgetown area know his legacy through the South Carolina Maritime Museum, although they may not know his name. The museum and the Wooden Boat Show exist in large part due to his patient behind-the-scenes work and vision.

Len grew up in Illinois, where he learned to sail on chilly waters. He was an athletic guy – his high school football team was undefeated for three years, and he was the quarterback. His athleticism gave him a choice: pitch for the Chicago Cubs, or take a football scholarship to Yale. He chose the latter, where he was again a quarterback.

But in his third year of college Len was having way too much fun, so his grades were not really where they should have been. He needed a change.

Len joined the U.S. Marine Corp., and he went to Korea. The four years he was on active duty during the Korean Conflict were the most defining in his life, he always said. Maybe it was the discipline or the fighting or the change of scenery, but when he came back to the U.S. with the rank of Captain, Len was on track. He married Marilyn Goodman, returned to Yale and finished his undergraduate degree. He performed so well that his professors were shocked at the transformation. They actually did studies on him, trying to figure out what happened to make him turn around so dramatically, and then Len went on to Harvard and earned an MBA. He and Marilyn had three sons, and they remained good friends after choosing different paths.

Len did something that is extremely rare these days: He spent his entire career working for only one company. He was an executive at Carolina By-Products in Greensboro, N.C., and he was there until he retired 30 years later.

Len met Susan Sanders in the early 1970s, and they became fast friends before deciding to sail through life together. The North Carolina coast was home to their favorite port, Oriental. That’s where Len retired and started Banjo Charters with his CSY44 sailboat named Banjo, and he and Susan launched an embroidery shop called Harbor Specialties.

“Hi ho, hi ho,” Len would sing as he strummed his banjo. “We sail and then we sew. We roll and pitch, and then we stitch. Hi ho, hi ho.” Len even taught Susan how to play the guitar so she could back up his banjo picking. Bluegrass is mostly what he played on that banjo, and it was one more area where he was accomplished. Len and Susan enjoyed sailing with friends, many of them musicians, on their succession of sailboats. Everyone aboard enjoyed harmony.

This period in Oriental is also when Len launched Harbor Talk, a newsletter sent to Harbor Specialties customers “now and then.” He always enjoyed writing and was so dedicated to doing it well that he had grammar and writing books by Strunk & White and William Zinsser on his night table that he studied for more than 40 years. Len’s articles in Harbor Talk always had interesting perspectives about boating and seashore life.

In 1993 Len and Susan drove through Georgetown for the first time and loved the waterfront. They loved it so much they packed everything up, moved to Georgetown and opened another embroidery shop.

He and Susan immersed themselves in the community, and they volunteered. One of the things they did was to leave the docks every day at 4 p.m. in their shrimp trawler Katy Hill (named for a bluegrass song) and cruise the harbor to greet transient boaters traveling north and south on the Intracoastal Waterway. They handed out packets including a map Len drew that featured all the important spots, like the post office and the liquor store. One year they logged in 2,100 boats.

In those days Georgetown had the Wooden Boat Exhibition, a precursor to today’s Wooden Boat Show when about eight boats were displayed at Georgetown Landing as part of the town’s Bay Fest. In 1993 the parks and recreation director asked Len to take charge of the exhibition, and Len speculated it was his Sperry Topsiders that got him the job. He asked Sid Hood to help him out, and since they both had businesses on Front Street they insisted on relocating the boats there.

Every year Len gently encouraged his cohorts to go a little farther and improve the boat show, which moved along the end goal of funding a maritime museum.

Most everyone knew Georgetown was the perfect place to establish the South Carolina Maritime Museum, and that doing so would be a boon for businesses in the waterfront area. Len was a brilliant idea guy who could clearly see what was important. He was the one who waded through the intensive and tedious paperwork of getting 501c3 tax-exempt status for the museum’s Harbor Historical Association, because he knew nothing else could advance until that was in place. The group’s mission was to preserve and promote the maritime heritage of Georgetown and South Carolina, and to eventually open the SC Maritime Museum.

As Len and Susan traveled to boating events along the coast, they spread the word that Georgetown, S.C., had a great wooden boat show. Len and Sid knew the exhibitors were what made the event, and they made it a point to treat them like honored guests. They added an exhibitors’ awards banquet, when they handed out handsome oval brass plaques as awards that could be affixed to the boats. There were a lot of awards. There were awards for the best boat in each exhibit category and there were special awards that became obvious as boat show day progressed, like an award for the oldest boat or the farthest distance traveled – the more awards the better!  Today, 26 years after the first Georgetown Wooden Boat Show, the number of exhibitors is approaching 200.

Back in the early 1990s there was a big (but short-lived) maritime show in Charleston that included a wooden boat-building challenge. When the show folded Len and Susan – accompanied by Sid, Sally Swineford and Susan Hibbs – didn’t lose any time acquiring the challenge for the Georgetown Wooden Boat Show, held the third weekend in October. Georgetown’s first boat-building challenge was in 1996, and it took the wooden boat show to a new level, especially with expenses like a big tent and building materials, which cost about $20,000.

Sponsors were suddenly extremely important, so Len came up with the Goat Island Yacht Club. He crafted the logo, a frolicking ram standing on its hind legs in front of a stylized “I”, which stands for Island. It proved to be a wildly fun and effective social club that Len proclaimed was “a state of mind.” The only way to be a member of this spectacle of conviviality (and get a coveted GIYC cap) is to sponsor the Wooden Boat Show. It’s hard to say who had more fun – Len and his fellow hard-working sponsor board members, or the sponsors themselves.

In 2000, Len and Susan decided to move to Charleston and open another Harbor Specialties, and they took with them Elizabeth Joyce. Susan says Elizabeth is the daughter they never had, and Elizabeth says she sorely misses going to Len for his advice. Elizabeth bought the Charleston location of Harbor Specialties from them, and she still owns it.

Len had respect for the underdog,” Elizabeth said. “He said, ‘What you see isn’t always what you get. You can’t judge people by how they appear. Live every day with no regrets, and treat everybody as nice as you can and with respect.’ Len had a process to how he did things, and in a certain order. As long as you stayed in that order, it was amazing how smooth things would go. He was methodical and genuine, and he definitely changed my life…He never got in anyone’s face about anything, and he never lost his patience.”

In 2005 Len and Susan moved to Beaufort, N.C., and they opened another Harbor Specialties after selling the Charleston store to Elizabeth. But even when they didn’t live in Georgetown, Len and Susan still helped out with organizing the boat show.

In 2011 it was time to open the SC Maritime Museum, and Len and Susan temporarily (for three years) moved back to Georgetown to help oversee that momentous occasion. This was the period when Len helped establish the museum’s youth sailing school. “We gotta get young blood,” he often said.

Len acquired the schematics for sailing school boats from friends in Oriental, and he digitized them for his well-used CNC router so he could precisely cut out boat pieces and, with the help of friends, construct a lot of little sailboats.

“We watched a little kid, skinny as a rail, walk in,” Susan said. “We both looked at each other and said, ‘Uh-oh. How is that little thing going to be able to sail one of these boats?’ He was just as timid and scared as he could be. But by the end of the week he was leading the crowd. He was the first one here, he was the first one to get his boat out and he could outperform anybody. We changed that kid’s life.”

2015 marked the third summer of sailing camps, and 130 children participated. Byproducts of the wildly successful camps were additional museum funding, but more importantly, it is cultivating a new generation of boat lovers who will someday take over museum stewardship and keep Georgetown’s seafaring history and traditions alive.

It’s just one of the many legacies Len Anderson left here. He could figure out anything and do anything, his friends say. That CNC router played a role in a lot of his great ideas, like sign making. He designed and constructed the beautiful gold leaf-trimmed museum sign that people can see from Front Street, as well as many other Front Street business signs. Len also used the router to make wooden sailboat models designed for children to put together, decorate and sail on a pool of water during the Wooden Boat Show.

In late 2014 Len and Susan moved back to the North Carolina coast, and that’s where Len passed away. He’s buried in Oriental, and U.S. Marines from Camp Lejeune came and performed a 21-gun salute along with full military honors. His grave marker says, as he requested, that he was a Marine and was Captain of the S/V Banjo.

Len’s tape isn’t invisible any more, and he got it right on the first take.