The Passing of a Gentleman

On New Year’s Eve my family and I received some sad news. Our dear friend Fred Roffe had passed away on 29 December at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan after a brave battle with cancer.

I first met Fred in the summer of 2002 at Mystic Seaport. He happened to ask me if I knew any books still in print at that time about Harry Clasper, the English boatbuilder and professional oarsman. Instead of just giving him the title of David Clasper’s book Harry Clasper: Hero of North, which was published in 1990, I gave him an hour-long vocal essay on the professionals. Maybe it was to finally shut me up that he invited me and my wife and our 1-year-old daughter to his boat True Love which he had docked at the Museum. That same evening we showed up at True Love, we were invited aboard where Fred and his lovely wife, Fran, provided us with snacks and cocktails. And so started a beautiful friendship.

As a professional, Fred had been an engineer for Grumman Aerospace in Bethpage and he was the lieutenant commander and education officer for the Peconic Bay Chapter of the U.S. Power Squadron. Fred had not rowed at school, although he had done his share of messing about in boats ever since he was a kid, and he was a great friend of rowing history virtually by being a descendent of the famous Clasper family in England.

Each time the Roffes visited Mystic Seaport with True Love, which they motor-powered across Long Island Sound from Hampton Bays on Long Island (which happened once, twice or three times a year), we were invited on board their beautiful 40-foot boat. Barely had we step aboard, and I had a rum drink in my hand and with that, and Fred’s family background – I mean here you had in front of you a descendent of the famous boatbuilder who invented the outrigger – my family’s visits on board True Love always became a long happy affair. Our two children have cheerfully tumbled around on the deck of True Love ever since they were babies, sometimes with a playful Fred by their side.

But not only did Fred and Fran welcome you with open arms, they were tremendously generous in so many other ways.

Fred had in his home an incredible collection of rowing memorabilia which had belonged to Harry Clasper and his son, John Hawks Clasper, also a famous boatbuilder. After some drinks one night, Fred told me that he did not know what to do with his collection of rowing ‘stuff’. I suggested that he should donate it to the National Rowing Foundation, which Fred did a couple of weeks later. His unselfish and noble gesture meant that these historic artifacts could be shared with the public and available for rowing historians and scholars to study. Knowing Fred, I see this act as a true mark of a gentleman.

“The Fred Roffe Collection of Trophies, Medals and Memorabilia of Harry & John H. Clasper” can now be viewed in the exhibit of the Rowing Hall of Fame at Mystic Seaport. Take a look here.

Fred will be sadly missed by my family and me, but also by a large number of staff and volunteers of Mystic Seaport, whom he and Fran befriended during their many visits to the Museum. Our warm thoughts go to Fran, who has been Fred’s wife for 51 happy years, and to their children and grandchildren.

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