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An interview with former Lighthouse Keeper Ron Gasper: A Coastie’s Voyage to Remember – Love in Grand Marais 1954

Oct 09, 2023 08:24AM ● By Content Editor

All photos courtesy of Ron Gasper, unless noted otherwise

By writer and author Deborah Winchell for Boreal Community Media - June 14, 2023

Louis Ronald Gasper, U.S.C.G Chief, Retired, began his Coast Guard career in Grand Marais in 1954. His tour of duty, which included Passage Island and Rock of Ages (ROA) Lighthouses, was also the beginning of a lifelong honeymoon. 

Ron’s Beginning

Born in 1935, Ron grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, a rambunctious kid who went on to charm the girls as a teenager. He met JoAnn in 1951 at a church event and immediately knew she was the one. He convinced his dad to let him marry JoAnn even though he was 18 and the legal marrying age was 21. Naturally, JoAnn’s mother said, “Absolutely not,” and tried to drag her home from the wedding, but the young bride was happy. The tightest knot was secured on June 25, 1954.

Before he and JoAnn got married, Ron worked at a local meat packing plant, but he had a broader horizon in mind. His neighbor had served in the Coast Guard during WWII, and Ron decided he’d like to become a “Coastie”, as Coast Guard members are often called. He joined in October 1953 - only a few months before his marriage to JoAnn. 

 JoAnn and Ron in 1954 and 2016 at their Grand Marais rental home

Ron made sure he was “A good boy in Boot Camp,” so he could get his choice of districts. He told them he wanted to end up in St. Paul, Minnesota, working on inland lakes and rivers. Instead, they were offering lighthouse duty with 45 days on and 15 days off; that sounded rather good to the soon-to-be young husband. JoAnn hadn’t a clue what it would be like to be married to a Coast Guard man, and he wasn’t sure either. Indeed, neither was prepared for a life in northern Minnesota.

 Grand Marais Coast Guard Station, 1954 - Cook County Historical Society 

The first assignment

In February 1954, four months before their wedding, Ron left JoAnn in Omaha and took a train to Duluth, where he boarded a bus north to Grand Marais in a whiteout snowstorm. He’d never seen anything like it, “I was worried, but you know those Minnesotans know how to handle their snow!” 

After spending the night at the Station in Grand Marais, Ron was shipped out on a Port William tugboat (today Port William and Port Arthur are named Thunder Bay) to Passage Island’s ice-covered dock. He was to serve two 45-day terms as lighthouse keeper at Passage, but the Officer in Charge (OINC) aka Chief, didn’t like him and made life miserable. Ron shared that years later he became an OINC himself, “I was a way better Chief than that one.” 

Switching stations

Despite the abuse at Passage Island, he served with a man named McFarland who he really liked. One day, a Commanding Officer heard the Chief cussing Ron out on the radio and realized there was an issue. The next day, Ron and McFarland were sent to Rock of Ages (ROA), where McFarland became the Chief. That “bad Chief”, as Ron refers to him, later became a Warrant Officer and ran a boat aground in Michigan. Ron is still smiling over that. 

 Rock of Ages Lighthouse

Two weeks after arriving at ROA and working under McFarland, Ron got his first stripe as Third Class Engineman. It was a powerful example to Ron of how to effectively lead men, and he never forgot McFarland for that. 

 Ron (left) and McFarland (right) at Grand Portage Dock

A tale for the (Rock of) ages

One of Ron’s most harrowing Coastie experiences happened at ROA on October 31, 1954, just before JoAnn would join Ron in Grand Marais. 

That night, he enjoyed a village Halloween party and was supposed to head back to ROA at dawn. However, at midnight he was called to help drag for a body in the harbor. According to an article in the November 11, 1954, Cook County Herald, a Sheboygan man, with a fully loaded tool belt, had been working on a logging barge moored just to the seaboard side of the breakwater. He fell off a boom into the frigid waters and they found his body on the harbor side the next day. Ron remembered the captain sitting there crying; the deceased man had called his wife the night before to tell her he was safe in port.

 Cook County News Herald article reporting the drowning - Cook County News Herald 

On November 1, the day after the drowning, Ron and a crew member headed back out to Rock of Ages Lighthouse. Normally, the trip took them an hour, but halfway there, they hit a howling blizzard, with 20-foot seas washing over their 25-foot boat, or, Wickie (so named after the lightkeepers who were once called Wickies). They could see nothing, and their compass was spinning wildly so it meant relying on dead reckoning. Without a compass or sight of ROA, the Wickie was headed toward Thunder Bay—even more treacherous waters than ROA. 

 Rock of Ages Wickie

Luckily, the weather cleared up just enough during those terrifying two hours so they could spot the lighthouse. But it wasn’t safe to land at the lighthouse dock, so they headed into Washington Harbor to stay in a cabin used by the Coasties when landing at ROA wasn’t possible. 

Ron is sure they were being watched over that night. After he warmed up, he went to drain the Wickie’s seawater system, but someone had left it open. He had to pump the bilge again; “They were plum full, up to the base of the engine. I thanked God for diesel engines that don’t need spark plugs.” Ron shared that he believes the bilge water was just enough weight to keep the Wickie from capsizing.  “We had to stay in the cabin for five days until we could make it out to Rock of Ages. We wrapped ourselves up in blankets at night and used an oil heater to stay warm. We’d wait and see who woke up first, and the one who was sandbaggin’ had to crawl out and fill the heater.”  With a mischievous smile, Ron boasted, “I won most of the time!”  

Making the move north

In November 1954, five months after their wedding, Ron and JoAnn packed everything into two suitcases and journeyed north--finally together. It turned out to be a honeymoon year for them as they settled in for the winter in Grand Marais - specifically in the Bloomberg cabin that was across the street from the courthouse that they rented. 

 Grand Marais Harbor Boats, 1953 - Cook County Historical Society

Grand Marais in 1954 had a few more businesses for the locals like a roller skating rink, movie theater, dance hall, drug store, clothing store, Ben Franklin, tackle shop, and a smoke shop out on the breakwater serving smoked herring. The Blue Water Café was the best dining place. When Ron brought JoAnn in the first time, a high school girl yelled, “Hi Ronnie!” Seems that Ron was still the charmer, and his bride wanted to know who the young lady was.

 Bally Blacksmithing Shop, 1953 - Cook County Historical Society 

That honeymoon year in the wilds of Cook County resulted in JoAnn getting pregnant. Ron sent her home to Omaha in March 1955, because there wasn’t a hospital nearby and he wanted her to be near family. In October of that same year, Ron took compensatory leave so he could be there when their first baby, named Louis, was born. Within 15 days, Ron was back in Grand Marais, and JoAnn stayed behind in Nebraska. 

After Ron’s time at ROA, he got transferred to Milwaukee, WI, and then the family was shipped off to Ketchikan, Alaska, for another adventure. However, Grand Marais always pulled on Ron and JoAnn’s heartstrings. It’s where a well-loved career and a family began. 

The later years

Eventually, Ron and JoAnn made it back to Grand Marais in 1979. During that visit, they took the Winona to Isle Royale. Ron, a seasoned sailor, told JoAnn the water may be a little choppy, but she said, “No, it’s rough!” Ron went up to the captain and said, “A little bit choppy, aye?” When the captain agreed, JoAnn turned a little bit greener…and not so happy. The captain then introduced Ron as a former lighthouse keeper, and he was invited to share his tales of what it was like to live and eat at ROA. He probably regaled the seasick passengers with details of the best meals prepared by Lighthouse Chef Roy Kenashoreo: stuffed pork chops, mashed potato stuffed meatloaf, and freshly-caught poached fish! He said when they got to Windigo most of the visitors were still green, and he didn’t get a lot of applause. Especially from his wife.

 Ron and Joe Serge drinking Fitgers at Rock of Ages, 1954

Ron and JoAnn took their children and grandchildren to Grand Marais in 2016 so they could all see where the mischief and sea-faring tales began. It connected years of stories to a place. It was good that they took that trip; six years later JoAnn Gasper passed away on October 10, 2022, after 68 years of marriage. She left behind a legacy of love and dedication, her beloved Ronnie, four children, seventeen grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren to carry on the voyage. 

 Ron and JoAnn

 In 1970, after just 16 years of marriage, Ron wrote a delightful story, Marriage is an Ocean Voyage, that this author wished he'd gotten published. Here is the ending:

After many, many days, and nights of battling stormy seas and enjoying tranquil seas, the voyage must come to an end. You must part from the Captain, and until you meet again, only the memories of the tranquil seas will exist. 

 Ron's Coast Guard memories

Ron Gasper is 88 years old and lives in Papillion, Nebraska. He signed off on this interview with his hand over his heart, “Good sailing. May the wind always be at your back.” A salute and goodbye to the coastal town that he loves. 

Author’s note: Louis Ronald Gasper is a bit of a celebrity. He was featured in a PBS documentary, Lighthouses of Lake Superior, and his interview with the Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation Society is now part of Isle Royale National Park’s archives. 

His factual story of another harrowing Rock of Ages mishap--when he slipped off the dock into Lake Superior during a November gale--is detailed in a new children’s book that will be coming out in the Fall of 2023.


Related: Polar expeditions to fighting cancer: the story of explorer and former Grand Marais resident, Eric Larsen

About the author

Deborah Winchell is a Duluth area freelance writer who has spent years visiting the North Shore and Cook County. She met Eric Larsen and Lonnie Dupre in 2005 when she hosted one of their fundraisers at Mayo Clinic. Years later, she invited Eric to Cornell University to speak about leadership to students, faculty, and staff.