After 30 years as the President of the Richmond Museum Association, Lois Boyle is retiring—sort of.
“I’ll be 80 this year,” Boyle said, eyes shining as she reclined back in a felt chair in her office. Her office these days is a small, bare room on a historic battleship—the SS Red Oak Victory Ship. To get to work, Boyle drives into Richmond’s long, windy port, past modern day freight carriers and hundreds of recently offloaded brand new cars, before the SS Red Oak interrupts the view. It’s tall booms jut out of the freshly painted hull floating next to Terminal 3.
Climbing on board the ship—and maneuvering around—requires a surprising amount of agility; the ramp up to the ship is narrow and wobbles as you walk. Once on the ship the passageways inside are even tighter and each doorway has a tall lip to step over. Boyle’s office is a few doors down on the right when you enter the “house”—the area on the ship with the living spaces and offices for the crew—from the main deck.
In a long succession of achievements that have promoted Richmond’s history and culture—from helping create the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts to successfully lobbying to get the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond—bringing the SS Red Oak Victory Ship back to town is Boyle’s proudest accomplishment. “Just the fact that this is a major piece of Richmond’s history that’s been saved, and it was going to be scraped,” makes it her favorite project, Boyle says.
But she’s quick to deflect too much credit. “Not my own pride,” she added, “but pride in the organization that had the vision to support this concept. I just had the honor to lead the charge.”
The SS Red Oak was constructed in Richmond during World War II just a few docks down from where it now rests; it was one of a thousand ships built in Richmond during that time, and is the only one that remains. The ship set sail from Richmond in 1944 and during the war served as a Navy ammunition carrier in Pearl Harbor and the Ulithi Atoll, a large lagoon near Tokyo where allied forces gathered to invade Japan.
In 1996, Boyle and the Richmond Museum Association board members successfully lobbied Congress to save the ship, which had been decommissioned in 1946. It had been periodically reactivated in the decades following the war, then permanently retired to the mothballed fleet in 1968. It was doomed to be scrapped, until the museum association launched their campaign to bring it back home to Richmond.
Since its return to Richmond, the ship has been berthed in the port—first at Terminal 1 and now at Terminal 3—as volunteers at the Richmond Museum Association have worked to restore it. The SS Red Oak is now a museum, and Boyle says it draws people from around the world. “People from 28 different countries, almost all of the U.S. has been documented on our visitor’s log,” Boyle said.
Despite a council dust-up last summer regarding the ship’s rent-free berthing, the museum association has since reached an agreement with the city to stay long-term at Terminal 3 free of charge.
Boyle says she’s not really sad about stepping down after three decades presiding over the association, although she regrets not finishing the ship’s restoration. Aesthetically, the ship’s restoration is nearly done, but Boyle and the Museum Association want to see a few more key elements brought back (like a five-inch, .38 caliber gun for the restored aft gun mount) and to have the ship steaming once again. Their goal is to have the entire project completed by November, 2013. The board is keeping Boyle on as Director of Ship’s Operations—a position created for her—to see it through.
Boyle, like her ship, has a long history in Richmond. She moved here in 1955 after attending a couple of years in college at San Diego State University. At first, Boyle didn’t have a lot of time for community activism: “I was a mother,” she said, responsible for raising five kids.
As her children grew older and more independent, Boyle started her own business letter shop—back in the typewriter days, they created carbon copies of letters for people. She later went to work for the city of El Cerrito and eventually went back to school for a bachelors degree in Public Administration and Urban Planning, then a masters degree in Public Administration.
History, she said, has always been a tangential love. Her family’s personal story was shaped by significant events in U.S. history, and Boyle said she believes that history’s primary importance is informing people about the present. “My father was Cherokee,” she said. “He was naturalized in 1906 when Oklahoma became a state.” She laughed at the irony of it—that a Native American in every sense would need papers to stay on his land.
During the Great Depression, Boyle’s father moved the family to California (“Thirteen of us in one car!”) after he lost his farm because of the dust bowl. In California, the family settled near Brawley to work on farms in the area.
Boyle said that her interest in maritime history probably began when she moved to San Diego for college and lived near the ocean. “I was raised in the desert, so we didn’t have much water around,” she said.
That interest, combined with her love of history, spurred her charge to obtain the SS Red Oak for Richmond. At first, as someone who had no experience on ships, having an office onboard wasn’t quite a natural fit. “Well, I don’t get lost any more,” she said, as proof of her growing knowledge of the ship.
But Boyle is being modest. She not only knows her way around the ship, she speaks expertly about its mechanical workings and knows exactly what projects need to get done for the ship to sail in November when it will take several hundred guests on a tour around the bay. With the Coast Guard’s permission, Boyle hopes to take as many as 700 paid participants on board for the catered cruise, complete with entertainment and a festival on the dock afterward.
“Getting the engine room in order is the first priority,” she said. “We need to get the boilers working and have to replace a little more steal on the hull,” she added, before going on to describe the differences between patching weak areas on a ship for docking verse sailing.
To prepare the ship for the November sail, a crew of fifty volunteers—mostly retired men—suit up in basic coveralls and spend much of their free time working on projects that range from cleaning and restoring light fixtures to fixing the ship’s plumbing. Tuesdays on the ship are especially busy for volunteers—and that might be due in large part to the homemade lunch Chef Richard Arnold supplies on Tuesdays.
On this day, he’s serving split pea soup and chocolate pie he made from scratch. The smell of the soup warming slowly permeates the first couple of floors of the ship, and at noon the ship’s whistle blows twice to signal lunch. Boyle jumps up out of her chair. “I’ve got to serve today,” she says before heading for the kitchen to ladle out soup for the hard-working volunteers. No break for her, though.