Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sky Pilot of the Great Lakes by John Kotzian

Why I Read It: I was happy to act as an editor for the author.

Summary: A missionary in rural Michigan in the late 1800s finds his true calling when rescued by a United States Life-Saving Service crew off Bois Blanc Island.
My Thoughts: I've spent the past decade and a half as an expert in the field of maritime history, specifically that of the United States Life-Saving Service, a forerunner to the Coast Guard. For the most part, it seems, the story has been told; rarely does a new tale come along. But, the thing is, I know that they are out there. The magazine I edited on the topic probably touched on the experiences of 50-75 station crews throughout the United States. But there were 279 of them. There are more stories to tell. Sometimes the stories tangential to the world of the Life-Saving Service are as compelling as the tales of the deeds of the life-savers themselves.

John Kotzian's tale about the Reverend William H. Law is not just such a tale, it's a family history, as John is a descendant of the "Sky Pilot." No one was better positioned to tell this story.

Law stumbled into the lighthouse and Life-Saving Service worlds while living on Lake Huron in the late 1800s. He'd gone into missionary work in the area to serve the lumberjacks, sailors and the local Native Americans, but a chance encounter with the Life-Saving Service on Bois Blanc Island set the course for the rest of his life. In need of assistance in the teeth of a storm, his boat receiving a battering by the waves, Law never lost hope, but realized the danger he was in. Then, from seemingly out of nowhere, the life-saving crew arrived and carried him easily to safety. He spent a few days with them, heard their stories, began to understand how lonely and unrewarding life could be in both services, and dedicated the rest of his life to them.

His contributions were multitudinous, from the compilations of traveling libraries to the delivery of his own annual "messages," printed bulletins full of hope and good cheer. The most important action he took, though, was to personally wage a campaign for the pensioning of life-savers and lighthouse keepers. We'll never know how important his work truly was in creating the Coast Guard (by giving the life-savers at least quasi-military status in 1915 and taking them out of civil service, the federal government avoided, at the time, having to establish pensions for the entire civil service sector of the government), but we know he played a role. Lighthouse keepers would have to wait until years after his death, but they, too, would get their due.

Law's adventures carried him well beyond the Great Lakes, out to the Atlantic coast, where he interacted with one of the most well-known lighthouse families in American history, due mostly to the fact that the matron, Connie Small, wrote her memoirs and lived until 2005. Small's own book cross-references the tales of interaction with Law, his visit to her Maine lighthouse home and the letters they sent back and forth.

Had John Kotzian not chased down his ancestor's tale, we may have entirely missed the William H. Law story. Thankfully, due to this work, this odd but inspiring piece of Coast Guard history survives.


  1. This sounds like a really interesting book. My dad was in the Coast Guard (just for a few years between high school and college) and I remember he wrote a history of the Coast Guard for school. I'll have to see if I can find it and read it with new eyes.


  2. I'd love to read it, too, if that's possible, as the Coast Guard has been part of my professional life for almost 20 years now.

  3. Rats. I forgot to look for it when I was in Maine this past weekend. I'll try to remember when I go back later in June.