Phil Bolger
1927 - 2009

Click here for News story from the Gloucester Daily Times
Boat creator 'leaves on own terms'
Designer Phil Bolger's suicide is 'part of his narrative,' wife says

The saddest of news
A letter from Susanne Altenburger

In the early morning hours of Sunday May 24th 2009 Philip Cunningham Bolger of 66 Atlantic Street, Gloucester, Massachusetts took his own life, out of his own free will, shooting himself in the head with his Colt 45. I awoke later to his absence and found his body on our property out of public sight. The matter is under routine investigate by the Massachusetts State Police and Gloucester Police Department.

He had observed the progression of declining mental faculties in earlier generations of his family. He expressed this concern as early as forty years ago while discussing science fiction with one nephew. Phil speculated about developing a machine to test for senility; the patient would be killed painlessly if the machine determined the onset of senility. The point was to relieve the individual of any terrifying concerns about a slow, pernicious, and painful demise.

By May '09 at 81 he was in excellent physical shape for his age. What Phil and I, his wife and full business partner Susanne Altenburger had come to notice over a number years were intermittent but mounting episodes of apparent cognitive decline ranging from near funny to seriously disturbing. In business it came to express itself in a less efficient design process and diminishing productivity. On the personal level his recognition of the condition went from not noticing, over denying it, to gradually recognizing that he would not be spared either. We openly and soberly discussed the repercussions, options, and likely outcomes of this unfolding reality. And he made amply clear his insistence on controlling his final fate if at all possible.

This reality emerged amidst an intriguing series of consultancies for US Navy, and increasing pro-bono work (1750+hrs) in an effort to prepare the Gloucester commercial fishing fleet for the age of $5.-+/gal. - The relationship with Navy has just recently been refreshed again in a warm and productive encounter with our client/patron, a Division Director at NAVSEA. - On the 'Low-Carbon' fisheries-project he recently has had opportunity to personally present the policy-proposal to Congressman John Tierney's respectful and encouraging reception, with key policy-advisors in both U.S. Senator's offices studying the proposal as well. He did take great comfort in the trust and support expressed by 40 local professional fishermen of all tribes and fisheries, a select number of shore-side stake-holders, and the continued encouragement by New England's Conservation Law Foundation. But after well over six emotionally exhausting years his efforts had yet to find constructive reflection in catalyzing jobs- and tax-base-generating marine-industrial local and state public policy for his ailing home-port, America's oldest Seaport of Gloucester.

The mounting stress of working on these serious and pressing matters alongside the regular design-work affected Phil's and Susanne's health, nerves and outlook more and more. So much was at stake and yet options were diminishing. A broad range of attempts to modify Phil's and Susanne's work routine to accommodate his slowing productivity proved ultimately unsuccessful. In the end, as defined by Phil this Sunday morning, he came to conclude that the inevitability of progressively losing his intellectual faculties and psychological strength had been confirmed often enough. He would not wait until he could no longer clearly discern the curve of his mental decline and concurrent emotional weakening.

Phil's personal life and body of work were an expression of firmly defined and ever broadened independence from deeply-entrenched conventions, intangible superstitions, and other known limitations on the free use of mind and thus sound judgment. He lived that way and decided to leave us that way.

He stated repeatedly that he has had 'a good ride', he marveled at many small and larger instance of good luck, was immensely pleased to have on major occasions in his life taken the right decisions - including asking me to join him in life and work - and expressed no fear of dying, only his concern for survivors. And without you all there none of this would have been more than some obsessive compulsive need to cover paper with ink.

We both understood, along now with a growing number in his family and friends, that there would never be a 'good time' to lose him, only that things would most likely become worse for him and us.

Phil Bolger's body of work will remain with Phil Bolger & Friends, Inc. under my guidance. Over fifteen years of shared life and work, Phil had progressively made the explicit point for me to gradually assume the conceptual leadership of the venture with more and more of the work developed by me and vetted by Phil's deep and broad personal and historic perspective. With his death is lost his
immense personal knowledge, unceasing inquisitiveness, constructive contrarianism, quick and warm humor, casual if not mischievous wit, and so often joyful outlook on to the next project.

I have had to let go of my closest deepest friend, this most encouraging and understanding master of his craft and art. I feel amputated in ways yet to be fathomed. He counted on my and your resilience to use the spirit of his work to make the most of our time on water in work and play.

Funeral and Memorial arrangements have not yet been made.
His request is to be cremated.

Mid-term it would seem an appropriate expression of love and respect for Phil Bolger to consider assembling here in Gloucester the largest fleet ever of his designs in all sizes and configurations for a memorial day on the waters that shaped, nurtured, and inspired him. Perhaps late summer/early fall would allow enough time for this project. Cape Ann has a campsite, numerous motels, lots of protected waters to overnight on. As the immediate vehemence of this loss will eventually wear off some, I would be very gratified to help structure this event. I hope that Phil Bolger's Friends will take it upon themselves to organize this salute to him.

Susanne Altenburger, in this time of grief with ever so important assistance by Holbrook Robinson, and Tom and Ben Bolger who were here, immediately, helping me focus with sound council based on personal connections with Phil for far longer than I ever had.

Susanne Altenburger and Phil Bolger in happier times

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