Digest>Archives> June 2001

The Thursday Volunteer at Bodie

By Jack McCombs


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Thes are the “Winter Volunteers” on the steps of ...

By Jack McCombs, CMSgt, USAF (retired)

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In the visitors center that is a bookstore and ...

The Outer Banks Lighthouse Society recently asked Jack McCombs to write about John Gaskill and his contribution to Bodie Island Lighthouse.

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The Bodie Island Lighthouse.
Photo by: Kathleen Finnegan

When I began my volunteer “career” at Bodie Island Lighthouse in June 2000, other volunteers and National Park Service Rangers told me that I needed to talk to John Gaskill whose father, Vernon, was the last principal keeper at Bodie Island, serving there from 1919 to 1940. I thought that he must be someone with very special stories to tell and that he could facilitate making my interaction with visitors more interesting. John was the Wednesday morning volunteer so I arranged to visit while he greeted visitors. I was thrilled with his stories of growing up at the lighthouse, about his father, mother, brother, sisters, and family life at the Lighthouse. I had assumed the entire family lived at the lighthouse year-round. However, John said this was not the case for most of his childhood. There was no transportation to and from the lighthouse except by boat; consequently, while there were school-age children at home, they lived in Wanchese so the children could attend school. It was only at holidays and during summer vacations that the entire family was able to live together at the lighthouse.

John has lived for many years as an adult in this same wonderful home. His dad, Keeper Gaskill, enlarged it with timbers taken from the Laura A. Barnes after she went aground on the Outer Banks 1921.

During the course of our first conversation, I mentioned to John that I was retired from the military, the US Air Force. He replied that he, too, was retired from the military, the US Navy. Our career backgrounds in the military bonded us immediately as there is a special kinship between military people, especially those who make it their life work.

Over the past eight months, John and I have become close friends. He is a gifted man, but so modest that he becomes embarrassed when complimented. John’s naval service makes him one of “The Greatest Generation,” a phrase coined by Tom Brokaw for the title of his best-selling book. John joined the Navy in December 1934, and, after several assignments on various warships including the first US aircraft carrier, he was transferred to the Battleship USS Washington prior to its commissioning in May 1941, and was responsible for one of the huge boilers. He participated in Russian convoy operations and transferred to the Pacific. He and his ship were involved in nearly every major naval engagement beginning with Guadalcanal. It was there that the Washington sank a Japanese battleship, which saved the island from recapture, and according to many historians marked the beginning of the end for the Japanese. It took several months of conversation with John before I learned any of this. It was only after I had read a full account of the Washington’s contribution to the war effort that I was able to understand what the ship, John, and his shipmates had truly accomplished and the terrible dangers they faced so bravely during those five long years of war. After retiring from the Navy, John was a civilian employee of the DOD. Then after retiring from the DOD, he became Director of North Carolina ferries between 1973 and 1977. Besides managing a very efficient ferry service, John initiated the service between Ocracoke and Swan Quarter.

Since first meeting John, I have gone to the lighthouse many times on Wednesdays to talk with him and to watch and listen as he talks to visitors. They are always thrilled when they learn of John’s history with the lighthouse and what life was like when his “daddy” was principal keeper. (There is something very endearing when you hear an eighty-five-year-old man refer to his father as “daddy”.) Often over the past eight months John has come to the lighthouse when I’m on duty (I’m the “Thursday Guy”). When he visits me, I immediately step back when visitors arrive so they can hear how it really was from a person who lived the life. I know that John in his interaction with thousands of visitors at the lighthouse over the past five years has had a significant impact on their appreciation of Bodie Island Lighthouse and, as importantly, U.S. lighthouses in general. This appreciation has and will continue to raise America’s sensitivity to saving this important aspect of our national heritage. John recently told me, “The lighthouse was my second and summer home. I have many fond memories of it although we were very isolated. Volunteering at the lighthouse for the past four years has given me the opportunity to tell people about living there, which I hope made their visit more enjoyable. Then after starting, I realized what a wonderful group of people I was working with and through them I have met many others wonderful people.”

Recently, John told his family and friends that he has decided to enter the Naval Home for retired sailors in Gulfport, Mississippi. That was initially distressing to all of us associated with the lighthouse as well as John’s friends in Wanchese as he is universally loved and respected. However, when he explained the nature of the facility —and it’s a wonderful place— we agreed with him that it was good move. Since he will be able to make regular return visits to the Outer Banks, he will retain his home in Wanchese and continue to live there during his visits. During his visits, we anticipate John will come to the lighthouse and for brief periods greet visitors, as many of us volunteers look on, listen, learn, and appreciate. John’s departure, however, means that except for his brief visits to the Bodie Island Lighthouse, we have lost its last interpreter who lived there. That is very sad, but all of us should celebrate this wonderful man’s life and his contributions to our history and heritage - both in war and peace.

The Bodie Island volunteers recently co-hosted a dinner for John, with the OBLHS and the NPS. Importantly, it was not a “Farewell” but a “Recognition” Dinner as John has been instrumental in bringing Bodie Island Lighthouse “alive” to the public.

Previously in reference to my volunteer work, I deliberately wrote “career.” John Gaskill’s reflections about the lighthouse and his family life there, the sheer beauty of the lighthouse and surrounding area, and the light station’s history are all part of our own heritage and should not be lost by the American people. I intend to continue my volunteer work as I love the lighthouse and I am very proud to be a part of the effort to save it and the heritage it represents. Moreover, I feel a special bond and obligation to John Gaskill and through him to all the men and women who lived and worked there and ensured the light burned brightly to provide safety for mariners who transited the dangerous waters off shore. John, you can count on me to do my part to save Bodie Island Lighthouse.

Want to volunteer?

You’ll find it one of the most rewarding experiences of your life; and it’s only four hours a week.

This story appeared in the June 2001 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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