Greenport’s Otto Schoenstein

Otto Schoenstein is a living legend.

Little did he know when he designed and built his first boat at age 11 that the stage was being set for a lifelong adventure of craftsmanship and creations that would touch so many lives. And little did I know when I called him to talk about the Kayak Derby he started for the Maritime Festival 14 years ago I would end up spending a few hours getting the most interesting Greenport history lesson ever.

Otto Schoenstein. Photo courtesy Juliana Thomas and David Berson from the book Workers on the Waterfront.

Otto Schoenstein. Photo courtesy Juliana Thomas and David Berson from the book Workers on the Waterfront.

For those who don’t remember or never knew, The East End Seaport Museum and Marine Foundation was formed 25 years ago by a tenacious group of Greenporters. This labor of love was created to rebuild the Long Beach Bar Lighthouse, or “Bug Light” as it’s called around here. Among that group was Otto Schoenstein. Otto built the lantern room, and at age 84 can still recount every detail of the construction. The Lighthouse was uniquely built in sections in the village of Greenport and later moved to its current location by barge. For those who’ve seen it you know it’s a work of art. The reconstruction of Bug Light is only one of the many community projects that Otto has lent his time and talent to over the years.

Mr. and Mrs. Schenstein’s home, a house Otto built, is filled with countless other works of art including hand crafted furniture, model ships (not built from a kit), a full-scale model of Bug Light and what I like to call “painted stories.”

One such story recounts, scene by scene, the adventures of 11-year-old Otto finding a working lantern on an abandoned boat and feeling as if he had scored a gem. Only later did he find out that the light was marking the night sky of a hazard to passing boats, and the removal of it caused the sinking of a tug! He smiles and shakes his head when he tells the tale of a naive younger Otto, saying “No one was hurt, of course.” The story ended when I learned the small lantern graces the entry post of their Greenport home! Otto is a wonderful and humble storyteller.

At every turn, I am suitably impressed with the accomplishments of this man. When the artistic mind is housed in an active craftsman, the possibilities are endless. He has proven that fact time and time again. Where others may see devastation, Otto sees opportunity. He sees a way to bring things to life. This artistry is reflected in the many years of dedicated service he has given to the East End Seaport Museum, The Railroad Museum, The Wildlife Rescue, Cornell Cooperative, Greenport’s village blacksmith shop, and countless other local projects, not to mention the personal reconstruction of boat after boat.

When Otto shows me how he designed the Kayaks for the Maritime Derby, his wife June gently chimes in and reminds him where certain pieces go. He has an exact scale model of the full size boats he designed for the race and June knows its construction as well as he does. I admire the knowing shorthand between them that comes from 62 years of marriage. June tells me “62 years and we have never had an argument.” Otto says “Yes, but she wins all the fights.” He shows me step by step how the boat goes together and as a kayak enthusiast I am intrigued and impressed. As Otto teaches me the construction June pours the coffee. We eat cookies, laugh endlessly about the race videos, talk about kids, grandkids and great grandkids. I see the fabric of a well woven family, the pride and joy of service and hard work, and I begin to understand the collective community praise about Otto Schoenstein.

He truly is a living legend. The thing about living legends is that they have so much to teach. The thing about Otto is that the lesson comes with such joyful exuberance that you really want to learn.

As I pulled onto North Road, I thought to myself, “I can’t imagine spending a more interesting and enjoyable few hours.” It was an honor to meet this charming couple. I look forward to the next time we share stories, coffee, and a good laugh.

Keturah Hurst