Merle Lawson, lifelong fisherman, dies at 86

05/03/2012

Merle Lawson, a dedicated family man, longtime operator of Lawson’s Landing campground and resort and legendary fisherman whose passion for the pastime was matched only by his desire to share it with family, friends and the generations of visitors who vacationed at the landing, died April 23 in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was 86.

Lawson worked at the family-run landing and summer destination campground—Merle’s grandfather Sylvester purchased the Dillon Beach site in the 1920’s—for 45 years. After growing up alongside the landing then run by his uncle, Merle took over the reins in 1956, establishing with his brother Mike the successful business today known as Lawson’s Landing. He continued as operator until his retirement three decades later.

Under Lawson’s management the resort’s popularity soared, with as many as 650 guests, many of whom returned year after year, traveling to the landing to enjoy the area’s famous clamming, fishing, biking and kayaking. For years Lawson skippered a 56-foot party boat called The Tracer, escorting guests to the most fertile Tomales Bay fishing grounds; he also oversaw, at various points, a charter boat service, abalone barge and sand quarry operation that served local dairy farmers and a golf course.

“Everything that he ever touched just grew in leaps and bounds,” longtime friend Tom McHale said.   

Beneath a frequently gruff persona, Lawson was well known for his dry sense of humor and deeply caring nature. Pam George, now a longtime worker at the landing and de-facto member of the Lawson family, said she had initially been intimidated by her new boss when she and her husband were hired in 1974.

The ice broke, she said, after the day she had been asked to clean a bag of fish heads, their awful smell amplified by a night of decomposition. George, pregnant with one of her daughters, felt she was going to become ill from the stench. “I just couldn’t take it,” she said. “I remember saying, ‘Merle, you just don’t pay me enough.’” Lawson burst out laughing, and the two went on to become close. Upon her former boss’s death, George, who still works at the landing, transferred the wooden nameplate that had adorned Lawson’s desk to her own.

“I think we formed a bond,” she said. “If you were upset he was right there for you. He was a marshmallow. That’s how I always saw him.”

As a businessman, Lawson was known for his sharp economic sense and get ‘er done attitude. Instead of stalling plans in deference to what he viewed as an unfairly expensive and bureaucratic permitting process, Lawson preferred to simply make things happen. His disregard for the county’s regulations resulted in a protracted feud that straddled decades: According to McHale, when one unsuspecting building inspector was sent to talk about compliance, Lawson asked the man how fast he could run and proceeded to fire up his tractor and chase him off the property.

“The guy never came back,” McHale said.

Still, Lawson’s legendary stubbornness and tenacity weren’t enough to permanently forestall county action: after his retirement the sand quarry was eventually shut down due to permitting conflicts, and the landing’s camping quota had to be drastically reduced.

The bad blood between her father and the county, Lawson’s daughter Nancy Vogler said, was born in part from generational differences: Lawson was cut from the mold of an era in which there was greater freedom to run a small business without the county always looking over shoulders to ensure proper standards were followed.

“That hurt his feelings in the last part of his life,” Nancy said of the quarry’s closing and the continued dispute over regulations. “All the trials and tribulations that you have to do, he just could never understand that.”  

As a fisherman and boatman, Lawson’s reputation was unmatched. Growing up on the bay, he quickly developed a love of the sea that remained throughout his life, and over the decades he acquired an uncanny familiarity with his small part of the ocean. “He knew the bottom of that thing like he walked on it every day,” McHale said.  

And in a fisherman’s town, Lawson cast the rare rod that inspired not only admirers, but quite literally followers.

“Everybody was always chasing Merle around, where was he going, what was he fishing for,” McHale said. “If you were near Merle, you were catching fish. All the charter guys from up in Bodega Bay wanted to know where he was at, what he was doing.”

Lawson engineered boating trips for guests, for family, for friends.

“He lived for fishing,” said McHale, who first met Lawson in 1956 and spent many an afternoon at his side. “It was such a joy [for him]. And I think that’s why I got along so well with him—it was just a pleasure to watch him watch other people fish and catch fish.”

Indeed, much of Lawson’s unbreakable bond with the sport was derived not from fishing for himself, but from teaching others. “Usually what he liked to do,” his grandson Willy Vogler, now in his early 40’s, said, “was just take somebody’s rod, use it to hook up some fish [and say]: ‘This is how you do it!’”

“Keep that rod-tip up!” was a famous line of encouragement, as was the frequent bellowing and cries of “Dammit!” when something went awry. In his desire to train young fishermen, Lawson could be blunt: If the novice happened to do something wrong, or forget to put his thumb on the spool, for example, “you would not forget a second time,” Willy said from experience.

Lawson was as generous as he was skilled. For years he supplied the food for the landing’s annual fish fry, genuinely satisfied to watch others enjoy the fruits of his labor. When he was “on the catch” he didn’t keep the hot spot to himself, as many fishermen do by either lying about their success or fabricating the exact location for zealous competitors; rather he took to the radio and broadcast the coordinates where the fish were biting. He did this so often, his grandson said, that other fishermen would sometimes avoid fishing near Lawson because they knew that if his rods got hot, a flock of boats would likely soon appear to share in the good fortune.

“He wanted to share those fish with everybody,” Willy said. “There are other guys who do that, but there’s not many.”

Not that Lawson didn’t keep any fish for himself. Even when leading a trip for paying guests, Willy said, there were two rods outside the boat’s cabin doors that were permanently reserved for the skipper. If someone happened to be in the way once one of the rods was bent, the passenger quickly learned to steer clear next time.

“It only takes one time getting knocked over and you knew what was going on,” Willy said. “He loved to catch fish. And every fish he caught was the biggest one ever.”   

Lawson was born on May 3, 1925 in Woodland, to Wally and Nita. When he was a young boy the family moved to Dillon Beach, where Wally had bought land alongside his father’s to start a dairy ranch. Young Merle spent his days running horses on the ranch and catching halibut on the bay. “They let him pretty much have the run at the beach,” Nancy said. “He would go from the ranch to the dunes to the bay.”

The fastest boats visible from Dillon Beach at the time were rumrunners—which inspired the boat-crazy Merle to temporarily want to grow up to join in the illicit transport. He also loved tractors and trucks, although perhaps not surprisingly one of his fondest early memories took place on the water: when Merle and his cousin Kent were both about 13 their grandfather took them on a trip to the edge of Tomales Point.

Instead of the usually choppy waters, the trio was greeted by a strangely calm surface, and the boys were allowed the rare freedom of stepping from the boat onto the rocks to gather the abundant abalone. The image of that particular day—the calm waters, the splendid catch, the time spent with his grandfather—stayed with him the rest of his life, Merle’s daughter said.

Lawson joined the Navy in 1941, two months after his 17th birthday. After a brief stint of radio school in Colorado, he was dispatched to Polynesia, where he remembered being trampled—his revolver stuck on a sandbag—by squadron mates clamoring for the foxhole amid incoming Japanese fire. At the end of the war Lawson trained flight crews over the Bermuda Triangle and the Florida Keys before hitchhiking home to California.

He married Icymae Stearns, who was attending UC Davis with Merle’s sister Ada, on September 1, 1946. Stearns had come home with Ada the previous Thanksgiving. “The minute he walked in from the back porch and saw the little classmate his sister had brought in, he knew he was going to marry her,” Nancy said. Icymae, however, jokingly maintained throughout their 65-year-partnership that despite her future husband’s confidence she herself never knew she was going to marry Merle.

After their small outdoor wedding in the southern California town of Pomona, the newlyweds headed back north, stopping along the way to look at trucks and visit decidedly unromantic agrarian towns like Bakersfield and Fresno. Upon their return to the ranch, Lawson worked until he could afford to start the new business, and the couple had two daughters, Nancy and Gloria.

Throughout the 50’s and 60’s, before a regular coast guard was established, Lawson’s boating expertise was called on regularly for a number of harrowing rescues. “For the most part if somebody got into trouble out there, it was up to other boats to help rescue them,” Nancy said. And Lawson never hesitated to head out, yet again, into the night waters—even after a number of the mishaps had proved fatal. “My mother and I always thought Dad would pass in a boating accident. I don’t know how many funerals we planned,” Nancy added.

In 1990, after Lawson retired, he and Icymae moved to Arizona, where the couple had been vacationing for ten years. While his health permitted it, Lawson made frequent trips to Dillon Beach to visit family and help out on the landing—and catch a few fish. For a man who spent so much of his life on the water, nothing was more important than passing on that same love and wisdom to younger generations. Some of his earliest memories, Willy said, are of boating trips with his grandfather. As a boy he would frequently get seasick, throwing up on or even before boarding the boat, but Lawson was undeterred. “He was going to make a fisherman out of me,” Willy said.

And he did. Willy now co-owns the landing his grandfather established.

Last year, when Lawson was in frail health, Willy’s two young boys went out for “one last trip with great grandpa.” Their dad said the boys already know where their love of fishing comes from, that they already associate their great grandfather with fun times on the water. But they were most impressed, he said, by Lawson’s determination in reeling in the catch. At one point during the day their great-grandfather had a fish on the hook. In the race to reel it in, the lifelong fisherman ended up falling to the floor of the boat.

Lawson fell. His rod tip stayed up.

Merle Lawson is survived by his wife, Icymae Lawson, of Gold Canyon, Ariz.; his daughters, Gloria Duby and her husband, Al, of Putney, VT, and Nancy Vogler and her husband, Bill, of Superior, Ariz.; his grandsons, Nathan Duby and his wife, Sherry, of Greer, SC, Willy Vogler and his wife, Nicki, of Dillon Beach, Tad Vogler and his wife, Erin, of Dillon Beach, and Jacob Duby and his wife, Cheryl, of Putney; his granddaughter Lavon Duby Butts and her husband, Dan, of Putney; and his great grandchildren Kimberley Butts of Baltimore,  Jennifer Butts of Burlington, Zachary Duby of Putney, and Cameron, Gage, Daniel and Tristan Vogler of Dillon Beach. He is predeceased by his father, Walter Lawson, mother, Nita Lawson, sisters Anita Kjobmand and Ada Granger and his brother, Walter “Mike” Lawson.