Maritime Society attacks unfair and unwarranted

The dispute about access to Harbor Light playing out in the pages of The Day and the chambers of City Hall is far more complex than reported, whether by news columnist David Collins, the Day’s editorial page, or its reporters. Many essential details were not made clear during the recent hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals, nor were they addressed in the recent editorial. Given a combustible situation in which all the details of the dispute have not been clearly stated for public review, it is a tragic irony indeed that the pages of The Day, an organization which was instrumental in the founding of the New London Maritime Society, are now providing the bully pulpit for an astonishingly one-sided attack on the leadership of the society and, by implication, its board of trustees and legion of dedicated volunteers and supporters.

This damaging exercise in the shaping of public opinion with incomplete information, enabled by Collins’ license to express opinions that may be contrary to his employer, has taken on the character of a vendetta, and one wonders why. There are two sides to this matter, perhaps more, but Collins’ rigid stance against the Maritime Society ignores important details and, in its aggressive tone, just may be poisoning public discourse.

Instead of offering constructive ideas that could lead to accommodation among the parties, Collins is pouring gasoline on the flames; rather than promoting compromise, as in the recent editorial, he fosters the kind of confrontational polarization that has come to characterize so much of the nation’s public life.

What is the motivation for this biased attack on the society and its leadership? Where is any balanced reference to the society’s side of the story?

When the Custom House was put up for disposal by the federal government in the l980s, The Day was the most influential voice in a community-based movement to preserve the building and form an organization to fill it with exhibits and events celebrating New London’s rich maritime heritage. This wide-ranging cultural and educational endeavor has been moving forward for some 30 years, with a steady procession of directors, trustees, volunteers and members bringing new ideas and broader community support to what has become one of New London’s most vibrant cultural institutions.

As one of the handful of individuals still active at the Custom House who were present at the beginning, or soon after, I have watched the Maritime Society’s progress through the work of its directors and volunteers of good will, who have always been counted among New London’s biggest boosters.

However, the society must cope, like all cultural organizations, with very tight budgets. When a largely volunteer organization is faced with legal costs to defend itself, its financial viability — indeed its very future — can be thrown into jeopardy. (I note that the provocative characterization of us as “litigious” is a gross misuse of a word that has come to be associated with frivolous lawsuits over such things as too-hot coffee at McDonald’s. If there is any frivolousness in this case, it is not emanating from the leadership of the Maritime Society.)

Will more biased opinions from Collins lead to the destruction of this unique and priceless legacy of the late Lucille Showalter, Frank L. McGuire, and Benjamin Martin, of the many governmental and private funding sources that have enabled the renovation of the Custom House and the repair of Harbor Light, and of The Day paper itself.

McGuire, for whom the society’s library is named, was a lawyer for The Day who provided legal expertise for the fledgling organization, while the paper’s upper management vigorously supported the cause in editorials and news stories. When writing his invaluable history, The Day Paper, Greg Stone was given unfettered access to archival resources at the Custom House, and the Day’s role in the formation of the society is briefly mentioned in his book.

More recently, we contributed photographs to The Day’s first historical picture book, “Looking Back”, and we edited (gratis) all the captions of both editions. One of our library’s most interesting holdings of newsprint is a complete set of The Day’s 50th anniversary special edition: ten sections and 200 pages of Theodore Bodenwein’s lavish production describing the history of the region and its state as of 1931 have been carefully preserved.

And so I wonder how these historic bonds, and the profound mutual caring for New London they represent, can be so casually tossed into the crucible of uninformed public opinion while key details of the complicated situation are ignored. This dispute requires the kind of attention to detail that will lead to solutions, not a reckless call for the resignation of the society’s energetic leadership. By attacking our director and board president, you are attacking all of us at the society. They and we do not deserve it.

Brian Rogers is the volunteer librarian for the Society’s Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library.

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