PO BOX 1209

GLOUCESTER, MA 01930FAX 978-282-1349


Philip C. Bolger

Dead at 81

From Susanne Altenburger

The mounting stress of working on these serious and pressing matters alongside the regular design work affected Phil’s and my 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 my 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 instances of good luck, was immensely pleased to have, on major occasions in his life, made the right decisions, including asking me to join him in life and work, and expressed no fear of dying, only his concern for survivors. 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 15 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.



In the early morning hours of Sunday May 24, 2009, Philip Cunningham Bolger took his own life, out of his own free will, shooting himself in the head with his Colt 45. I awoke to his absence and found his body on our property out of public sight. He had observed the progression of declining mental faculties in earlier generations of his family. He expressed this concern as early as 40 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 of 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, through 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 the 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 fuel. The relationship with the 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 US Senators’ 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 stakeholders, 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 homeport, America’s oldest Seaport of Gloucester.

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.

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 water to camp/cruise 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.

I add the following note from the Navy to contextualize Phil’s work further:

“Susanne: My thoughts and prayers are with you as you comprehend the profound loss of your best friend. I cherish the opportunities I and our Navy team had to work with Phil and you, and concur with Phil’s assessment that he “had a good run,” indeed he leaves behind an unparalleled body of innovative work, but more importantly a vast array of friends, colleagues, and clients who will forever be positively influenced by his work, design philosophy, and life. Please let me know of the timing of the fleet assemblage as it develops.

I will continue to keep you informed of US Navy progress in our joint areas of interest, in particular the encouragement of a medium speed low mix lighterage, an LCU replacement new design and procurement, which has been helped and enabled by Phil Bolger and Friends’ MUTE and LCU(F) design work for us. Deepest sympathies, but holding to a celebration of Phil’s life.”

Readers with personal memories of their experiences with Phil or his designs are invited to submit short essays on them for our September issue memorializing Phil’s contributions to those of us in our Messing About in Boats world. We will acknowledge receipt of all such contributions immediately upon receiving them. If you have already submitted such recollections, be assured they will appear in the September issue. (August issue goes to press about the time you see this invitation).