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Ports' First Captain Lived and Died 'With a Flair' : A Loving Last Salute to Adm. Higbee

September 25, 1986|TIM WATERS | Times Staff Writer

He was a crusty old salt to the end, a man regarded by some as the eyes and ears of the port and by others as a cantankerous cuss who never shut up.

And they loved him.

That was obvious Tuesday as about 200 people gathered at the Navy chapel on Terminal Island to pay their final respects and give a military farewell to Coast Guard Rear Adm. Frank David Higbee, who died Sept. 8 at age 92.

Active until his death, Higbee, a decorated veteran of World Wars I and II who served as the first captain of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, collapsed and died while working out at a San Pedro gym he went to every morning.

'Lived With a Flair'

"He lived with a flair and he died with a flair," his daughter, Anne Higbee-Glace, said as she delivered the eulogy with a Coast Guard honor guard behind her.

"To die at 92 at the YMCA after swimming, push-ups and sit-ups is flamboyant."

The word flamboyant, Higbee-Glace told the crowd, also described the life of her father, a local legend of sorts who sped around the harbor area in his black Buick (license plate "1 SEAMAN") and kept a constant vigil over the bay through the use of of an old Japanese artillery telescope he had installed at his hillside home in San Pedro.

A dapper dresser whose regimental mustache became his trademark, he was never reluctant to speak his mind on maritime affairs, especially to Los Angeles port officials, who several years ago named a San Pedro street after him.

"When they named that street for him, I think that was his zenith," said Higbee-Glace, who lives in Massachusetts and served in the Coast Guard during World War II. " . . . I wired him and said, 'At last you have your own wave in the harbor.' "

"Frank would rarely, rarely give a one-word explanation for anything," said the Rev. Arthur Bartlett, a former Los Angeles harbor commissioner who described Higbee during the service as a man of vision and wisdom. "A little later on (in life) he was a little less verbose."

Orphaned as a child, Higbee joined the Navy in 1913, serving on the Bainbridge, the first destroyer in the American fleet. After World War I, he was discharged and moved to Bend, Ore., to try his luck as a cattle rancher, only to return to the sea in the Merchant Marine after a few months.

Commissioned in Coast Guard

In 1926, he was commissioned in the Coast Guard as a lieutenant and just before to World War II served as the first captain of the two ports. After his military retirement in 1946, he became warden at the Port of Los Angeles, where he earned the reputation as an iron-fisted enforcer when it came to safety matters. The warden serves as the port's chief technical administrator.

"I was a third mate in the Merchant Marine in 1948-49 and was terrorized to come into the Los Angeles Port because he was the warden," Jack Guest, a retired Coast Guard officer who also once served as captain of the ports, recalled Tuesday. "There were so many horror stories about him.

"He was a son of a bitch, but you always had to respect him."

Higbee's concern over port safety, as well as environmental issues, continued until he died--sometimes to the chagrin of Coast Guard officials who followed in his steps as captain of the ports, a job whose primary duties include the enforcing safety and security regulations.

'Kept Me on My Toes'

"He was very free and open with his advice," said Walter White, captain of the ports from 1978 to 1980 and now a professor of electrical engineering at California State University, Long Beach.

" . . . Although I did not enjoy the phone ringing all the time, I would hang up and tell myself I had picked up some (information) that I could maybe use next week or next month. He kept me on my toes."

Bartlett said that in recent years, Higbee, who was maritime adviser to the State Lands Commission, advocated having supertankers moor offshore and unload their volatile cargo through pipes placed underwater, thereby decreasing the chances of a catastrophe inside the harbor.

"He was always aware, always concerned for the port and the people who lived there," Bartlett said.

Higbee's ashes were buried Sunday on the front lawn of the Seamen's Church Institute in San Pedro. The church's bells rang 92 times--once for each year of the mariner's life.

"He was adamant about about not wanting to be buried at sea," Higbee-Glace said. "He said he had fought the sea for 72 years, and he didn't think it should win in the end."

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