The South Street Seaport Museum family mourns the death of longtime Museum historian, educator, Melville scholar, and friend Jack Putnam. In the words of Saul Austerlitz in the New York Times, Jack was the official historian and unofficial conscience of the museum.
Over a span of decades, Jack was a champion of the Museum and its efforts. He put his shoulder to the wheel in myriad ways but in all respects was stalwart in support of the mission. Many will remember him best as Herman Melville himself, reciting “Chapter One: Loomings” from memory. I have had the privilege to hear Jack recite this opening passage, most recently with my young son. It is this passage that moves me most, particularly in Jack’s voice:
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
Jack spent his time at sea, and was as romantic about it as a fellow can get. But he also had a clear-eyed view of maritime New York and the critical importance of the port. He saw Albion’s Rise of New York Port as regular required reading for all of us here.
In 2013, after Hurricane Sandy and when the Museum was closed to the public, Jack regularly attended our weekly staff meetings, despite having no official role at the Museum. The effort to bring back the museum he loved was what mattered to him, so he showed up. And he paid us the complement of praising our work. We were all buoyed by him, and his cheerful disposition will be sorely missed here.
We join with Jack’s many friends, colleagues, and shipmates in celebrating his life. We’re grateful that he spent so much of it with us.