Steady at the helm. In 1944, 19-year old U.S. Merchant Marine Academy
Midshipman Wilbur Harris Vantine had the wartime fears of all seamen—storms, U-boat torpedos and Imperial warplanes. American Merchant Marine had a casualty rate surpassing the Army and Navy, after all. But after being ordered to self-report 25 demerits for having fallen asleep in a class on Naval Courts and Boards, it was a foregone conclusion that, once the report was processed, the soonto-be top scholar in his section would be expelled. The number of demerits exceeded the limit. His name would be posted any day on the ‘Mast List’ for expulsion.
Van, the name his peers called him, later wrote that it never crossed his mind to request leniency; he chose to take the humiliation of expulsion as well as he could. However, an unknown midshipman later informed Van that the Vantine demerit report had ‘slipped’ out of the report box as the unknown midshipman fished out his own report. The demerits were never processed. Van graduated atop his section in 1945.
Born in Quanah, Texas, on 16 March 1925, to stock farmer John Theodore Vantine and Lola Blanche Kerley. Van was largely raised by his sister Blanche Vantine in Missouri after his mother’s death in Van’s infancy.
Upon graduation from the Academy, Van was commissioned in the Navy Reserve, joined the Merchant Marine, and served on tramp freighters in various capacities until 1957. At that time, the U.S. Government considered Van a civilian. At age 26, Van obtained his Master Mariner license. He married Dorothy Marie Whittaker
(Schneck) of Sedalia, Missouri, in 1956, and became step-father to 14-year old Dewey Blaine Whittaker. Though Capt. Vantine had no offspring of his own, he informally adopted Dewey.
Van defined the stages of his life as ‘before Dorothy,’ ‘with Dorothy,’ and ‘without Dorothy.’ The photos from their lives in Panama (1957-1997) reveal their extensive joint travels and their involvement in Canal Zone and expatriate activities and causes. Van’s individual interests included astronomy, photography, ship bridge design, expert pistol marksmanship and Macintosh computers.
From 1957 to 1983, Capt. Vantine served as a Panama Canal Pilot. His work: to temporarily take the bridge of a large vessel and expertly conduct an ever-changing orchestra of sailors, tug captains and engine room workers through the congested confines of the locks, cuts and sea traffic lanes of the Canal. Each full transit took 8 to 12 hours.
Van’s employment and service records were spotless except for one seeming blemish—a reprimand for having led the Panama Canal Pilots Association through a series of creative, successful strikes against the U.S. Government for safer work conditions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The union collectively, and with scrupulous precision, performed their duties ‘by the book.’ The effect was to slow Canal operations to a crawl; D.C. and the NYSE took notice. Van’s efforts resulted in safer work conditions at the Canal along with higher pay and better benefits for the pilots. Eventually, the reprimand was rescinded. Van later remarked that it took a lot of bureaucratic mischief to turn a lifelong Republican into the president of a labor union.
Dewey married Maria Concepción Molina Monreal in 1970, and the couple had two children before Dewey died in 1980. Van invested Dewey’s life insurance proceeds and used them to fund Dewey’s children’s education.
Van and Dorothy considered Maria their own* and encouraged her to love again. Maria remarried, and her children and step-children regard Van as their grandfather.
Just before Jimmy Carter surrendered the Canal Zone to Panama, Van and Dorothy moved into Panama City, became expatriates, and resided in a series of apartments overlooking the Bay of Panama. After early retirement in 1983, Capt. Vantine continued working as a marine consultant and part-time oil tanker pilot units 1997.
In 1989, 44 years overdue, the U.S. Government recognized Capt. Vantine’s maritime war service with veteran status.
By 1997, Capt. Vantine and his bride retired to the Tucson Foothills in Arizona, where Dorothy suffered a stroke the following year. Shortly thereafter, Van and Dorothy moved to McAllen, Texas, to be near Maria.
Over the next 11 years, as Dorothy’s health declined, Van served as her caretaker.
In her final weeks, in order to have Dorothy pass in the presence of loved ones, Van rented rooms in the home of Maria’s CNA relatives. Their marriage lasted 52 years. He said of the stroke, “It took my best friend.” Their marriage lasted 52 years.
After Dorothy’s death, Van continued to reside in McAllen. During this time, he promoted his 2005 memoir, resumed his pistol marksmanship, and took up yoga. On Thursday, 3 December 2020, Capt. Vantine’s 95-year voyage concluded gently at Amara Hospice in Edinburg, Texas. His death was due to complications from congestive heart failure. He died surrounded by Maria, her husband, her offspring and his faithful last best friend Fritz, the Manchester terrier.
A memorial service will be held via Zoom from the Vaughan Funeral Home, 812 E. Cano, Edinburg, Texas, 78539, at 4 p.m. (central standard time) on Friday, 11 December 2020. Service will be online on the free Zoom app. Zoom Meeting ID: 836 0887 7630. Passcode: 3sbLEf.
Donations to the Salvation Army, Capt. Vantine’s favorite charity, are encouraged. Flowers are accepted.
Capt. Vantine’s remains shall be interred next to Dorothy’s at Heritage Valley Memorial Park, Coolidge, Arizona.
Capt. Vantine’s professional associations: Society of Naval Architects and Marine
Engineers (Panel H-10, Ship Controllability); The Marine Society of the City of
New York (Life Member); the Council of American Master Mariners; Navy
League of the United States (served five terms as President of the Panama
Council); Kings Point Alumni Association (Life Member, Past President of the Panama Chapter and 1945 Class Agent); International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots; and the Panama Canal Pilots Association (Past President).
Surviving (references to direct issue related above)
Daughter-in-law: Maria C. Maples; son-in-law: Kenneth J. Maples; grandchildren*: Lennard K. Whittaker, Samara A. Whittaker, Tommy Maples, Sefra Maples, Sarina B. Keller, Jonathan P. Maples, Sasha M. Miller; greatgrandchildren*: Eden Fradkin, Reagan A. Cramer, Haley Abrams, Marcus Cervantes, Sloane Keller, Olivia Miller, Edith Maples, Sutton Keller, Dean Miller, Emery Maples, Hazel Miller; Nieces: Kathy O’Bryhim, Ann Asel; grandnieces & grandnephews: Leslie Besecke, Kelly Besecke, Tim O’Bryhim, Brendan O’Bryhim; great-grandnephew & great- grandnieces: Alyson Chatterjees, Julia Chatterjees, Evan Chatterjees.
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