The fishing gods smiled on Don Mohr Sunday.
If they had wanted to be mischievous they would have sent a bluefish blitz down East Beach. Had that occurred, I have no doubt the 87-year-old Marine sergeant — I am told there is no such thing as a former Marine — and retired college athletic director would have summoned the strength to grab a rod off one of the many vehicles parked nearby.
Sunday afternoon, the first day of the 65th Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby and likely the last day Don will feel Chappy’s sand under his feet, friends and fishermen gathered to say goodbye in a most appropriate setting.
For 26 years, Don and his wife Marian have been fixtures on Chappaquiddick’s beaches. Even after he had had more parts replaced and repaired than an old Penn 704Z, Don still fished the beach, often sitting on his trademark white bucket that served as a seat, greeting everyone he met like an old friend.
Don fished until age eroded his strength and the proverbial “one more cast” became the last cast.
At the end of this month, Don and Marian, his wife of 42 years, will move from their West Tisbury home to a retirement community in Roosevelt, Georgia, where they will be closer to children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and far away from New England winters.
Marian said the wooded setting is not unlike West Tisbury. “It’s been 26 years here,” she told me as we huddled from the stiff east wind by the Dike Bridge entrance to East Beach. “It’s time to move on.”
Don’s family lives in Cincinnati. The move will knock a 16-hour ride and a ferry trip down to a more manageable six hours, she said.
I met Don almost 20 years ago just prior to the 46th Derby. I had started writing a regular fishing column, and Don, the Derby chairman, needed someone to take over the souvenir booklet. I recall him telling me, “We can pay you, or we can put you on the committee.”
I chose the committee. I remained on the committee almost a decade. Almost 20 years later, Don still gets a kick about that one. “That was a good deal for both of us,” he told me Sunday with a laugh.
A committee of some 20 fishermen is no easy group to direct. Some members thought the best way to make a point was to repeat the same point, each time louder. Don would not have it. He would go around the room and give each member an opportunity to speak ensuring that the quieter members had an opportunity to participate.
Don was used to leadership. A Marine sergeant during World War II, he served on islands that have become footnotes to history — Midway, Kwajalein, and the Marshals. “I made the grand tour with the Marine Corps. I was never wounded, but I got malaria,” Don said. “From one island to another, that’s something for a boy born in Cincinnati.” On September 10, 1923 to be exact, he said.
Prior to his retirement, Don was Athletic Director for Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, from 1968 to 1981. His tenure included important accomplishments for which he was inducted into the university’s hall of fame.
The Vineyard, a place where Marian had family connections, seemed like a good place to retire. “He heard there was good fishing up here,” Marian said.
In the early years, Marian would fish. Then it was enjoyable enough to just be on the beach and read a book.
Those first years Don would stop the beach buggy to fish, and Marian would set up a chair on the beach and spread a blanket out. Then Don would spot something up the beach — terns, another fisherman, splashes — and say, “C’mon, lets go.”
Marian told me, “Finally, at that point, I just decided not to get out of the car.” Through it all, and it has not always been easy, she has remained a devoted fishing partner and wife.
She acknowledges she will miss the ocean. “We are both so addicted to the surf,” she said. “We could both come out here and sit for hours.”
Ron Domurat and Barbara Rogers, who organized the party, understood that connection. They had considered other venues — a restaurant, a house — and then decided there was only one place to say goodbye to the Mohrs.
On Sunday, Don was bundled up against the wind that in better days would have blown in the big bluefish that make Derby winners. What will you miss, I asked.
“Well, the fishing of course. And my favorite three spots: number one, the rip, number two, Squibnocket, and three, Lobsterville Beach. You could fish any of those spots, depending on the wind. And the friends you make are unbelievable.”
Don was never one of those solitary figures skulking around the beaches, avoiding people. He liked people, and he liked fishing around people. His idea of heaven is 40 people crossing lines and cursing each other during a bluefish blitz at Wasque Rip.
Sunday, Don enjoyed East Beach the way he liked it best, with friends and fishing stories, lots of stories, and hamburgers and hot dogs and a big birthday cake.
“You’re going to be missed and you’re not going to be forgotten,” Ron said.
“I hate to leave, but I can’t do the things I used to do,” Don said with no trace of sadness. “It’s been a great ride, and the best part has been the people I met and the friends that I have. I’ll take a lot of good memories with me.”
Derby Kids Day
The Kids Mini-Derby is Sunday, from 6 to 9 am, at the Oak Bluffs Steamship pier. No casting skill is required and a simple fishing rod will suffice. Simply bait a weighted hook with a piece of squid or sand eel and drop it to the bottom where, with luck, a hungry scup or sea robin lies in wait.
Derby committee members, led by long-time kids’ chairman Cooper Gilkes (assisted by keeper-of-the-records Lela Gilkes) will be available to provide advice and assistance. The mini-derby is strictly for kids old enough to hold and reel a fishing rod, through age 14. It is the one and only time fishing is allowed from the pier.
A reminder, this is for the kids. The committee frowns on adults who, under the guise of “helping,” do the fishing.