Otto Schoenstein was 11 when he built his first kayak, constructed from spare parts he collected from a local shipyard during his downtime after school.
Once that was done, a rowboat and a sailboat soon followed.
“I just kept moving up and building more,” said Schoenstein, whose love of “cruising” the water and constructing boats, models and homes has always held an important place in his life.
Now 84, Schoenstein has either built or reconstructed more than 40 of his own boats. It was aboard one of those vessels that he and June, his wife of 62 years, first fell in love with Greenport more than 60 years ago.
“We cruised from St. James with a boat I had and came to Greenport,” he recalled. “We stayed at the Mitchell dock before there was the marina. It was a good jumping-off point to Block Island and Sag Harbor. It was a safe port.”
It’s for his love of the village and his commitment to its maritime history that Otto Schoenstein will be honored during the East End Seaport Museum and Marine Foundation’s 25th annual Greenport Maritime Festival. He will be celebrated during the festival’s Land and Sea Greenport Gala on Friday, Sept. 19, at 6 p.m. and will serve as grand marshal in the annual parade Saturday, Sept. 20.
“Otto has been such a fantastic supporter of the museum with his spirit and his ingenuity,” said Arlene Klein, secretary of the board of the East End Seaport Museum. “This is our way of saying ‘thank you.’ We really appreciate good people like Otto who put their heart and soul and beliefs into action.”
Growing up in Queens, Schoenstein got his start in the construction industry at an early age. But when he turned 17, in 1946, he enlisted in the U.S. Army — technically making him a World War II veteran though he never served in battle. There, he learned how to build bridges in the Army Corps of Engineers.
After 18 months of service, he was honorably discharged before his 20th birthday.
When he returned to Queens, he got back into construction and spent his early 20s learning from veterans of the craft. He met June while renovating her parents’ basement and, after they married, he established his own contracting company.
To this day, the pair agree, they have never had an argument — only “a few fights.”
“He is a great man,” June Schoenstein said. “He is the best father and the best husband, so dedicated.”
Schoenstein quickly gained a reputation for his work and soon clients wanted him to build their North Fork homes. He built five houses from the ground up in Greenport shortly before planting his own roots in the seaside community, constructing his own Maple Lane home in 1984. He still resides there today.
To the community that knows him, however, he is more than a boater and skilled contractor. Schoenstein’s mark is measured by his kindness, dependability and unwavering willingness to share his talents and expertise to help better those around him.
Even those who never heard his name might have seen his talent.
In perhaps the most fitting monument to his skills, the young man who crafted a kayak as soon has he learned to work with tools, constructed the beacon atop Long Beach Bar lighthouse.
In 1990, Schoenstein advocated reconstructing the lighthouse, known locally as Bug Light, after it was destroyed by arson in 1963. A team of volunteers reconfigured it according to its original plans, shipping each individual piece to the offshore lighthouse on a barge where it was assembled in the open water.
Schoenstein personally built the Lantern Room, which crowns the charming and fully functional landmark, in less than three weeks. His sons Joseph and Fred, who own North Fork Welding, also contributed to the project.
Schoenstein said he will never forget the moment the lighthouse was capped with his creation.
“It was a big celebration with the Coast Guard and fireworks,” he said.
But completion of the lighthouse wasn’t the first or last of Schoenstein’s volunteer efforts.
He was the driving force behind the project to recreate the Village Blacksmith Shop in Greenport after a nor’easter destroyed the original building in 1992. Today, the Blacksmith Shop is a valued educational facility and tourist attraction.
He has also contributed to the restoration of Caboose No. 14 at Greenport’s Railroad Museum and the historic buildings at Hallockville Museum Farm in Riverhead.
When he’s not building, Schoenstein said he can likely be found doing something related to his first love: sailing.
He will be pulling double duty at this year’s Maritime Festival, set for Sept. 19-21.
He’s leading the parade and will continue his 14-year run of organizing the kayak races.
Each year, Schoenstein designs the eight kayaks to be assembled by the race participants.
“It is all about the water,” he said.