The Ship Keeper

Helen Rozwadowski on the Avery Point campus of the University of Connecticut.
Helen Rozwadowski on the Avery Point campus of the University of Connecticut. Abby Pheiffer

Helen Rozwadowski keeps Avery Point campus on course

Editor's note: Nearly five years ago, in May 2005, Helen Rozwadowski was the first Woman of Grace for the magazine's debut issue. With the launch of a redesigned Grace magazine, we checked back in with Rozwadowski.

The view from the semicircle of windows in Helen Rozwadowski's stunning office this sunny January day is bright, open and filled with activity - kind of like her life.

Last August, Rozwadowski, associate professor of history in marine studies at the University of Connecticut, Avery Point, became interim campus director and temporarily inherited the office, along with the administrative duties.

The room on the second floor of the campus's historic Branford House boasts 10 tall, leaded windows that offer a view of Fishers Island Sound with Ledge Light, New London Light, Ocean Beach, ferry, submarine and other river traffic providing interest. It's a lovely and fitting workspace for the maritime historian and author.

Rozwadowski, who has spent a good amount of time at sea, had never been an administrator before. But she looked to her maritime experience to get her footing.

"When I first agreed to do it, I knew I didn't want to do it permanently," she recalls. But as she fretted, a powerful maritime analogy occurred to her: "You know what this campus needs is a ship keeper," she thought to herself.

A ship keeper stays by the dock when the ship is home or between captains and keeps the operation running smoothly and the vessel in ship-shape. That's how Rozwadowski approached this phase of her career. She'll leave the big initiatives to the new director, who has yet to be chosen, and will hand over a campus that upholds its mission for research and academics.

"I care deeply about Avery Point," she says.

In the meantime, she's teaching, maintaining her student-friendly office in the Academic Building - outfitted with the couch students requested when she arrived more than five years ago - and researching her next book.

When interviewed in 2005, she had just published her second book, "Fathoming the Oceans: The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea." It focused on 19th century journeys of sea exploration. Now, Rozwadowski is researching a book about undersea exploration in the 1950s and 1960s and how the invention of scuba opened up this frontier to scientist and layman alike.

She's also kept her sea legs. During the summer she works one day a week at Mystic Seaport as a grunt, essentially, on the Seaport's boat demonstration squad. She's been to sea several times, including two weeks on a schooner as part of a course based out of Avery Point.

"There I was next to a sophomore who was getting sick over the rail," she says. The voyage included teaching and standing watch in the middle of the night.

While her career steered a true course, her personal life hit rough weather. Five years ago, Rozwadowski was coming out of a divorce and juggling her job at UConn with single motherhood of two young children.

About three years ago things got really scary. Her son, Thad, now 11, was diagnosed with Burkitt's lymphoma. Neurosurgery, sessions of chemotherapy and myriad tests that included three spinal taps a week followed. To help, Rozwadowski's parents came to live with her in her small New London home for a year.

Rozwadowski kept working in order to stay sane, she says, and to maintain a sense of normalcy for her daughter, Meg, now 7.

"He missed most of third grade," she says of her son. Happily, he's in remission, is caught up at school and is playing sports again.

Today, Rozwadowski is engaged to be married and has moved to a larger home in downtown New London, which affords her family the freedom to walk downtown to events, to the playground or out to eat.

And the big old house has plenty of room for her parents to visit, under happier circumstances, and to take in the view from downtown New London across the river to that office.

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