Captain Frederick Kent Dezendorf, 1914-2011

My father-in-law passed away quietly in his sleep this week, in his house on the beach in Florida. When the morning sun rose, he didn’t. Capt. Dezendorf had stood his last watch. He was 96.

I hardly know where to begin with this guy. He was a seventh-generation son of Brooklyn. His family goes so far back in U.S. history that the British still owe them for several ships they swiped a couple hundred years ago. He went to sea not because of his ancestors, however, but because he loved to read. Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood and other sea stories set him on his life’s course.

Fred became an officer on the former Grace Line’s cruise ships, where he met the adventurous young woman, Ginny, who became his wife. She was a stewardess. It was 1940 and for their honeymoon they toured the West in a borrowed car.

These were the people who crushed the Nazis
When the U.S. entered World War II, Ginny drove an ambulance in New York City and Fred captained Liberty ships. He was 27. He crossed the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean in convoys on pitch-black nights that might suddenly be torn by explosions, sirens, and gunfire. In the morning one of the convoy’s ships would be gone. Or two or three or five. The survivors closed the gaps and kept sailing.

Fred was the captain of the Peter Minuit when they developed engine trouble and fell out of formation. A British destroyer kept them company. The Peter Minuit’s crew had to turn off the engines to work on them. As twilight came down their escort had to return to the convoy. Imagine yourself in the place of this young man, standing on your bridge, on your helpless, drifting ship, as the destroyer disappeared into the gloom and a lone voice called back, “Good luck, Petuh…” Sometime in the dark early hours, they got the engines running, and soon they rejoined their convoy. Just another day in the Merchant Marine.

It’s a Great Life
As the war ended, Fred became a pilot on the Panama Canal. He also worked for a time for a shipping company in Venezuela. In the 1950s, Fred moved his family back to New York and took a job as a deckhand for Moran Towing. By the time he left in 1964 he was their general manager.

After a few years as the harbor master in Woods Hole, Massachusetts (where he moonlighted as the driver of the Martha’s Vineyard ferry), he and a partner founded the pilotage at Port Canaveral, Florida. Fred had always loved to work, from the time he was a child helping to support his family by tying up packages at the A&P, and he continued as a pilot until he was 70 – climbing ladders up the sides of ships in the middle of the night to get to the bridge and bring the ship safely into port.

He always said that he’d been lucky. Early on he had found exactly what it was he wanted to do with his life.

In his 26 years of retirement, Fred twice drove across the country in his van with his two Norwegian elkhounds, once going all the way to Alaska. He wrote his life’s story, which he called It’s a Great Life. He loved bird-watching and he passed that love on to Special D, who once wrote to him to say, “Thank you for giving me the birds.” He enjoyed repeating that.

Heaven’s a little closer in a house by the sea
Fred stayed in his home right to the end, with nothing really wrong with him. He was just very old. Shipboard accidents couldn’t kill him. Hitler couldn’t kill him. Falling down a flight of stairs at 82, bashing his head open, and being found the next day by neighbors, with a blood pressure reading of zero over zero, couldn’t kill him. In his last years he slept more and more and mostly fell silent. But when he sat in his accustomed chair by the window with a view of the Atlantic, and someone put on some big band music, he still tapped his foot.

The day after his death, Moran’s Florida tugs flew their ensigns at half-mast – and Fred hadn’t worked for Moran in 46 years.

Fred was predeceased by his parents, his two brothers, and his wife. He is survived by one sister, five children, six grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, one cat, and a thousand stories of courage and resourcefulness that he always told with style and self-deprecating humor. No one loved a good story with a good laugh more than he did, even if the laugh was on him.

Fred’s ashes will be scattered at sea, as he had scattered Ginny’s. If you’re of a mind to mark the passing of this extraordinary man, please make a donation in his memory to your favorite library or to the American Merchant Marine Veterans Memorial Committee. Or give a dish of rum-raisin ice cream to your favorite dog.

  1. Patrick Reilly says:


    I’m just after reading this and remember the Captain by reputation. I’d worked for Moran and he was a legend there…the MARCOS story being often told! He was a true seaman that many of us held in awe…

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      Patrick: I’m happy that someone could find this seven years later and appreciate it. Thank you for your comment, and I’m happy to know that Fred’s memory lives on. When I married into this family, I had no idea what I was getting with Fred Dezendorf!

  2. Bob says:

    We gave Captain Fred a brassbound ship’s chiming clock, upon his retirement from Port Canaveral’s Pilots Association. He seemed pleased. Months later, I received a “back up” thank you note telling me how much he appreciated hearing the sound of the clock sounding, every half-hour. He was building a home, in the Carolinas, at the time.
    Heck of a guy. One of his favorite sayings, when confronted with another example of federal lunacy was, “Buy rubles!” The man was prescient.

  3. Accused of Lurking says:

    I would have liked to have known him.

    • Tim Q says:

      Steve, I’ve often heard you mention your father-in-law. Now I feel I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to meet him. What an interesting life! Thanks for sharing and condolences to both Deborah and yourself. Tim and Anne

  4. Giles says:

    Steve. That was truly touching.
    I lost my father last August. My respect for him had always been high. But in death he caused it to soar even higher. He was a lifelong birdwatcher, and could tell you the species, sex of a bird by just hearing a few bits of its song. He taught 1-6th grade, then how to teach reading and language arts to elementary teachers as a college professor. Not quite as exciting as being a merchant marine during WWII, but useful to society. He had 5 kids. All of whom were in college one year at the same time. I will always have fond memories of him, but mostly I will remember how he died. He was told his kidneys were failing due to a growth on them. It might be cancer. Something I know has touched your family as well. They wanted to do a biopsy to see if it was. If it was cancer, he would go on chemo and dialysis. If it wasn’t then it would be dialysis. He asked what his chances were of surviving chemo. (He had other health issues, esp. with his heart). Slim they said. So he said, “No. I’ve lead a good life. I’ve no regrets. I just want to go home. ”

    The five of us (my siblings) gathered from the far corners of the country, and stayed with him and my mother for three days as he faded due to the kidney failure. It was hard, but as a lifelong teacher, he taught us one more thing. Everyone dies. I am so glad I was able to be with him those last few days. Talking to him, and taking care of him. After he was gone, the house filled with 50 of his friends from over the years. There was a little crying, but mostly there was remembering funny things he did, and jokes he played on his friends. Quite laughter and lots of hugs. No one claimed he was in a better (or worse) place. No one said they would pray for him, only that they would miss him, and that we should be proud of the things he did. Most importantly, there was no deathbed conversion atheism, and to me, most remarkable is that, this took place in the buckle of the bible belt. A small town in Oklahoma. Gives me hope for this world.


  5. Ali says:

    Beautiful. I’m so glad that he was a part of your lives–and that, through this writing, he’s now a part of mine.

  6. Rob Neely says:

    This is a great homage to an exceptional human being. Also provides wonderful insight into Deborah and why she adores him. Thanks for sharing this part of your lives, cheers Stevie

  7. Peter says:

    Nice. He would have enjoyed it.

  8. John Pitts says:

    Too often I bear witness to passing of these brave heroes without so much as a nod of recognition for providing us the live we take for granted today. Thank you for your well written, heart felt obituary marking Captain Dezendorf’s passing of the final bar into Fiddler’s Green.
    As mentioned in our earlier convesation, the American Merchant Marine Veterans Memorial Walls of Honor are the only headstone many of these Sailors will ever have attesting to their existence and contributions to a better world. Thank you very much for our mention of the Memorial Committee as a recipient of contributions in Captain Dezendorf’s name.
    With your permission, I would like to relate your words to those assembled at the National Maritime Day observance on May 22nd at the Memorial in San Pedro.

  9. What a lovely piece. We are choked up over here. Thanks.

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