The year 2002 marked 30 years of work in the lighthouse community for author, educator and preservationist Elinor DeWire. Her outlook remains positive. “It’s been a period of enormous change for me and for lighthouses, and all of it good, I think,” she says.
The youngest of nine children, Elinor was born in Frederick, Maryland. Her family lived on a dairy farm, and as a child the closest thing to a lighthouse she saw was the silo next to the barn. But she read voraciously and The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge was one of her favorites. This whet Elinor’s appetite for lighthouses, but it wasn’t until she married Jonathan DeWire in 1972 and moved to Maine, where he was stationed at Brunswick Naval Air Station, that lighthouse fever really took hold.
Elinor was captivated by her first sight of Maine’s Seguin Lighthouse offshore, “a spike of white on a distant island with its light flashing through the fog.” Trips home to Maryland or to Jon’s home in Pennsylvania allowed them to visit more lighthouses along the way, and every Navy transfer led to new beacons to visit.
In 1980 Elinor began writing for a newspaper in Florida. One thing led to another, and soon Elinor sold a story on lighthouses to Mobil’s Compass Magazine. “I quickly discovered lighthouses were my ticket to publication,” she says. Books were the next logical step, and Pineapple Press published Elinor’s first book, Guide to Florida Lighthouses, in 1987.
In the midst of all the traveling brought on by Navy transfers, Elinor managed to earn an M.A. from the University of Connecticut. She worked for a time at the Mystic Seaport Museum, serving simultaneously as Assistant Supervisor of the Planetarium and Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction for the entire museum. From 1993 to 1999 she taught fifth and third grade in the Groton, CT public schools. The teaching of a lighthouse unit led to the publication of The Lighthouse Activity Book.
Elinor came to feel that no book had paid adequate tribute to America’s lighthouse keepers, so in 1995 she published the book Guardians of the Lights. “That’s about the time the ‘lighthouse mania’ began to really take off,” she recalls. “I was suddenly much in demand for slide talks, signings, interviews, and TV and radio shows. Finally, in 1999, Jon retired after 28 years in the Navy, and I left teaching to write and speak full time.”
She’s mostly associated with lighthouses and has published seven books on the subject (with three more soon to come), but Elinor has written extensively on other topics as well. She’s published four books on astronomy - “My other love!” — and writes a newspaper column on maritime topics called Shore Almanac. She also has a longtime interest in the U.S. Lifesaving Service and wrote a column about it from 1992 to 1999 for Mariners Weather Log.
Although she no longer teaches, Elinor still visits schools and conducts workshops. “The most important thing I try to give kids,” she explains, “is a sense of my excitement and passion for what I do.” One of the ways she reaches children is with the help of her cat, Lighthouse Kitty, otherwise known as Ida (after Ida Lewis, the famous lifesaving lightkeeper of Newport, Rhode Island). Elinor’s pet is the mascot of “Kids on the Beam,” her regular feature in Lighthouse Digest. “All kids love animals, and the stories of lighthouse animals are warm and reassuring,” says Elinor. “Lighthouse Kitty gets lots of snail mail and email, some of it from adults, and works with a number of schools around the nation. Bill Younger of Harbour Lights has been a tremendous help to Lighthouse Kitty by donating all the prizes she gives to kids through her column and website. We also have other donors who help with Lighthouse Kitty’s work by sending postcards, cancelled stamps, and bookmarks for her to give to kids.”
Elinor’s “Kids on the Beam” feature served as an inspiration for the conference by the same name held in New Bedford, Massachusetts by the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF) this past September. “I’m grateful to ALF for recognizing the important mission of educating kids and serving as the vanguard organization in this endeavor,” says Elinor. “The lighthouse legacy will be handed over to a new generation soon, and we need to be sure they’re ready to accept and care for it.”
Elinor estimates that she and her husband have visited over 500 lighthouses worldwide. She says, “It seems like only yesterday I stood at the mouth of the Kennebec River looking out at Seguin Lighthouse and thinking, ‘What a different world that must be, an important place connected to, yet detached, from my world here on the sand. There’s a story out there, and I must tell it!’ People’s efforts are the true story. They built lighthouses, tended them, designed and implemented new technologies for them, watched them become obsolete and disappear, and now are saving the history, artifacts, and the structures themselves.” She says that teamwork is the key to successful preservation. “It may sound sappy, but we need to work together. Everyone in the lighthouse community needs to get busy on some part of the task and share the work and the knowledge they gain.”
Elinor and Jon recently moved to the Pacific Northwest. She’s already started work on a book on Washington lighthouses, and hopes to get groups to work together on a Puget Sound Lighthouse Festival. Much of Elinor’s lighthouse traveling now takes place in the comfort of the large office in her home overlooking the Olympic Mountains. Close by are her huge collection of research materials, a closet full of photos and a “near-museum of memorabilia” packed in boxes in the basement. Her two grown children call the home decor “Early Lighthouse Overkill.” “Thank goodness I have a supportive family!” she says - not to mention a loyal following across America.
For more information, check the web site of Elinor’s publishing company, Sentinel Publications: www.sentinelpublications.com
This story appeared in the
February 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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