Joseph D. Harnett

Joe Harnett was my mentor in all things about boats.

My interest in boating reaches back to my youth, when my Uncle Tom gave me a tour of his boat in Monroe, Michigan. I was probably 10.

Many years later, over the winter of 1972-73 my good friend Preston Bradford encouraged me to experience the excitement and rewards of sailing by joining his father’s sailboat racing team on Stratagem, a very competitive yacht at Mentor Harbor Yachting Club near Cleveland, Ohio.

Joe Harnett was the owner and skipper of Stratagem. I really knew nothing about boating or about sailing, much less about competitive sailboat racing. Joe Harnett’s reputation was a no-nonsense competitor who enjoyed a deserved reputation of racing skills and winning trophies.

There was much more. Joe was a senior executive at Sohio, and his reputation was firm but fair. Joe could be a disciplined, tough guy.

But those were qualities I respected in a person. I found Joe to be generous, accommodating and tolerant of my lack of boating knowledge. After our first season of racing we often met at the boat to make repairs and improvements. I loved the mechanical aspects of boating and Joe had taken me under his wing. I was on a high learning curve.

Joe’s firm-but fair tough-man image was accurate. But there was another side of Joe as well. Our 6-man racing crew spent every Saturday afternoon together, and often days together on those long-distance races (to Erie, Buffalo, Toledo).

Joe’s wife, Nancy, assumed the role to provide the meals for our long-distance races. Nancy was adamant that the meals were nutritious, easy to prepare, and something all of the boys would enjoy. It was obvious that Joe and Nancy had a healthy regimen at home as well. They were two very healthy people. So one day, as we were provisioning the boat, Joe handed me his sailing bag and out fell a huge bag of M&Ms. Over the years of racing Nancy made sure our provisions never included anything like fat-laden snacks, let alone candy. I made a comment to Joe. “The nights can get pretty long” was his answer. I wondered how many years he had been sneaking candy aboard.

Joe was very generous with his crew. As we were waiting for a race to start in Erie, Joe took everyone to a local hamburger stand, one of those A&W A-frame structures. We overwhelmed the clerk with our large order for food. As we were waiting Joe went behind the counter and started filling drinks for everyone. The clerk was beside himself. “Sir, you can’t be back here.” Joe would say “you keep cooking your hamburgers. I’ll fill the drink orders.” “But sir!” All ended well. Joe tipped well for those who earned it.

As the senior executive at Sohio, Joe didn’t hesitate to use his benefits, as long as there was no cost to the company. We raced Stratagem from Mentor to Buffalo as a feeder race for the Lake Erie Race from Buffalo to Toledo. Joe had asked me to drive the crew back to Cleveland, but what I didn’t know was that Sohio had placed two executive vehicles at the Buffalo yacht club for us to return to Cleveland. I was learning that Joe was totally organized and quietly took good care of all of us.

During Sohio's construction of the Alaska pipeline Joe was the senior executive in charge. We enjoyed hearing stories from Joe about the enormous construction project, and we were anticipating the day when the oil would flow. Finally the day arrived and the news media covered the event with great fanfare.

But the opening days did not go well. At one of the pumping stations a large valve failed and a fatality occurred. It happened to be a Friday, and the racing crew of Stratagem knew that Joe was on a jet to Alaska. On Saturday morning, much to our surprise, Joe appeared on the dock and we were off to the race. The boat was dead-silent, since none of us wanted to create any more stress for Joe than he was already experiencing. The race went perfectly.

During the race every crew member executed his task perfectly. We finished many boat-lenghts ahead of our competitors. Once back at the dock, as we were making the boat "ship-shape", Joe commented "I really appreciate all of you working so hard to win the race. If I had gone to Alaska I would have been a figurhead and I just would have been in the way. This is where I feel I belong."

After the regular racing crew graduated from University School and later from college it was increasingly difficult to hold the racing crew together. Joe decided to sell Stratagem, but in the meantime he outfitted it for pleasure sailing. He eventually offered to sell the boat to me, and we arrived at a very fair price. Joe then offered to continue a partnership arrangement, which was his generous way to make the payment terms affordable for me. Joe and I purchased new instruments and sails, but he insisted that the ownership arrangement dictated that he pay for 75% of the cost of the improvements. Joe and Nancy seldom used the boat, but Joe wanted to keep Stratagem “in the family”.

When I was elected Commodore at Mentor Harbor Yachting Club I invited Joe and Nancy to the change of watch. I had been in touch with Joe over the 20 years that I had full ownership of Stratagem, but it never occurred to me that Joe was 91 years old when I called. Nancy reminded me of his age and that they would not be able to attend.

Joe Harnett passed away at age 95 this week. His dedication to his family, the business community and numerous charitable organizations was recognized by the local news media. His memorial service was a true celebration of his life.

I have lost a great mentor and a good friend.