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Frank Schubert, 88; Last Civilian Lighthouse Keeper in United States

December 19, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Frank Schubert, the last civilian keeper of a coastal U.S. lighthouse, has died. He was 88 and died of natural causes Dec. 11.

Schubert died where he had lived, in the seven-room brick cottage beneath the 113-year-old lighthouse in Brooklyn's Coney Island, where he had worked for 43 years.

"The Coast Guard mourns the loss of its most courageous sentry of the sea. His devotion to duty and courage are unequaled," said Capt. Craig T. Bone, commander of Coast Guard Activities New York.

Schubert hadn't seen a movie since 1946 and hadn't taken a vacation since 1958. He preferred the spectacular sunsets and 15-mile ocean view outside his front door.

After his three children grew up and moved away and his wife, Marie, died in 1986, he lived alone at Norton's Point with his dog Blazer.

"I'm a relic," Schubert cheerfully told The Times in 1989, shortly before his Coney Island Light Station became one of the last in the country to be automated.

"The Coast Guard wants me to stay on, and I surely don't want to leave.... My plan is to stay as long as I live."

So he did. He remained in his cottage rent-free, keeping vandals away and serving as informal guide to the tourists who increasingly flocked nostalgically to the nearby 85-foot iron and steel tower.

Schubert's death leaves only one manned U.S. lighthouse.

That is the nation's original lighthouse, Boston Light, built in 1716, staffed by the Coast Guard because of a special preservation law sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Schubert kept himself busy with hobbies, including bowling, woodworking and the marquetry process of furniture making.

For a time he fished, but he eventually grew tired of it.

He was honored for 50 years of service in 1989 at the White House by former President Bush.

Bush "was nuts about lighthouses," Schubert later told Associated Press delightedly.

Born on nearby Staten Island, N.Y., in 1915, Schubert joined the U.S. Bureau of Lighthouses in 1937, during the Depression.

He spent his first two years on the Tulip, a ship that tended buoys in New York Harbor.

Schubert had just been assigned to his first lighthouse, on a sliver of rock off Staten Island, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt transferred lighthouse jurisdiction to the Coast Guard in 1939.

Schubert stayed on as a civilian lighthouse keeper.

He served two years in the Army during World War II, mostly on landing craft in the Pacific, then spent 16 years tending three lighthouses on Governor's Island.

He moved to Coney Island Light on Norton's Point at the entrance to New York Harbor in 1960.

"The most excitement I can remember around here was ... when a tanker and a freighter collided in the bay," he told The Times in 1989.

"They drifted by the lighthouse looking like a tremendous torch from the explosion. More than 19 men lost their lives aboard the two ships."

But because Schubert quickly summoned Coast Guard fireboats and other emergency craft that night in 1973, 63 seamen were rescued.

The lighthouse keeper's job was harder in the early days of Schubert's career.

The lights that warned ships originally burned kerosene, and when a keeper climbed the steps to ignite the beacon, the flash could blind him if he failed to wear protective glasses.

Schubert also had to wind a mechanism that made the light rotate, turning a metal crank for about 20 minutes.

On foggy nights, he might have to sound the 1,000-pound lighthouse bell by pounding on it with a sledgehammer.

After electricity replaced the kerosene, he often had to rush up the 87 steps at Coney Island Light when a bell by his front door signaled that the 2-inch, 1,000-watt bulb needed replacing.

Schubert also mowed the grass, maintained the plumbing and electrical equipment and did carpentry, painting and other maintenance at the cottage and the homely 1890 tower.

Last year, Schubert earned enormous, and by then unwanted, popularity when he was featured in an "All Things Considered" segment on National Public Radio.

"Visitors, visitors, visitors. It drives me crazy," the octogenarian said candidly in the radio interview.

After that exposure brought a flock of phone calls and personal requests for interviews over several months, the formerly mild-mannered tour guide snapped at a New York Times reporter: "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm the last civilian manning a lighthouse in the country; so what? Does that mean I can't be left alone?"

Schubert is survived by a daughter, Francine Goldstein of Staten Island; two sons, Kenneth of Brooklyn and Thomas of Rio Rancho, N.M.; a brother, Peter of Staten Island; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

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