Saturday, July 12, 2014

Celebration of Life: Renn Tolman

From the Homer (Alaska) Tribune: "Homer boatbuilder and musician Renn Tolman passed away peacefully in his tiny beachfront cabin on the afternoon of Saturday, July 5. He was 80.
A celebration of Renn’s life will be held at his boat shop in Homer at 4 p.m. Saturday, July 12.
Renn was well-known in Alaska coastal communities for designing and building the Tolman skiff, a practical dory-style v-bottom boat that found wide use among hardy seafarers on Kachemak Bay and around the world. His two do-it-yourself books, describing an economical “stitch-and-glue” construction process involving plywood and epoxy resin, sold thousands of copies. Tolman skiffs can be found in Germany, Norway, Australia and other countries. An old-school outdoorsman, Renn traveled far across open water on hunting and fishing trips. At his death he had just completed a new design, the Tolman Trawler
." (The link on his name has many photographs of his boats and a few of him.)
I have only just heard this news, and while I haven't actually talked to Renn in decades, he is part of the memory of my teen years in New Hampshire.
To celebrate his life today, at this great distance from his boat shop, let me just say that one of my treasured memories is sitting up in his cabin in Nelson, before he moved to Alaska, listening to my older brother and Renn playing music with their other pals. The cabin was smoky, dim, small and spare. It must have been a cool evening as there was a fire blazing while the harmonicas, fiddles, guitars, flutes and voices combined for a lovely flow of energy.
Renn was not an easy man to know, even if you were an adoring fan just because your brother was. But even then, he gave off the air of a hermit, a man who had much to think about and little to say, unless he sang it.
He was an integral part of the Nelson 'scene' with music and picnics and other dramas which others may or may not remember during those vibrant summers of the late '50s. Renn would have been in his mid-twenties then, and there were plenty of women who had their eyes on him. But there was something remote about him, almost ethereal, and however much I studied him, he was not someone I could easily describe to anyone else.
I know that when he moved away, his father, Newt Tolman, did not like to speak much about him. One night when we were having dinner at the Tolman's house, I asked him, "Are you angry at your son?" Newt cleared his throat several times, gathered up his voice, and with unusual sentiment for that crusty old man, he replied, "No, not at all... I just miss him something terrible."
Sometime after Renn moved to Alaska, my brother drove up there to visit, taking with him his strong-minded male Wiemaraner as company for the long drive from Massachusetts. I'm not sure where it happened, but along the way, apparently the dog decided he needed to get out to pee and opened the back of the camper and jumped out. My brother saw nothing until the flashing lights of a state trooper pulled him over to ask him if the dog that was chasing him was his. Reunited, they went on together and spent some of the summer with Renn. 
Having just watched the movie "Cloud Atlas," supporting the theory of reincarnation, which I tend to align with, I should expect Renn might be promoted to a distant star colony where his music and delicate soul can flourish.

(A more detailed obituary was published by The Sentinel (Keene, NH) and can be read here.)
Godspeed, Renn.

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