<< MEL & ME
I came to Key West during the year-end holidays of 1984 to go to a birthday party, where I met a number of people who worked for Mel Fisher's Treasure Salvors. After sitting on the top deck of my friend's houseboat for a week, I no longer had any doubt about where I'd like to spend the next stage of my life.
I went back to Jacksonville, where I'd left my old car and took leave of my mother who, at 85, was obviously glad to get rid of me in order to spend more time with her new boyfriend. A couple of years later she joined me in Key West, where she charmed high and low for the remainder of her life. She was working in the museum taking tickets one holiday season and never got over her $100 bonus from Mel during the glory days after the "main pile" was found.
I arrived in Key West with everything I owned in the back seat of my car and $500 between starvation and me. I was about to apply for the job of caretaker on Ballast Key when someone who knew the Fisher enterprise told me they were looking for someone to help out in the office. Taffi Fisher interviewed me and finding my 30 years professional writing experience, my fluency in Spanish and my Master's Degree in writing adequate, offered to hire me at $4.00 an hour.
Things were tough all over, but I said, "Taffi, I can't be loyal for four dollars an hour. I'll be spending all my spare time looking around for a better job. Give me five."
She did. I found the office crew generous, friendly, pleasant, and more than well qualified. Mel and Deo were out of town so it took me a while to meet either one of them, but the first thing I was signed up for was to do some final proofing for brochures promoting Limited Partnerships in the Atocha endeavor and work on a quarterly newsletter. Bleth McHaley, Gerry Cash and I worked together on it with great cooperation and a barrel of laughs, and both staff and stockholders seemed to enjoy it. I undertook to write a column called "Old Spanish Scuttlebutt" which dealt with the evolution of Spanish coins -- a project that locked me in to an obsession with the coins found on the Atocha and Santa Margarita, and proved a good background for what was to come later. Bleth was wildly into political activity fighting the refusal of the academic world to recognize the scientific validity of the archaeological work being done on the two sites, and Gerry illustrated everything with his invented pirate, "Pegleg Pete". Pat Clyne wrote racy stories making fun of all our detractors, and I learned to use a MacIntosh computer.
In May of that year the position of Executive Director of the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society came open and I was offered the post, which I accepted with pleasure, as it carried a slight increase in salary and a small percentage of the Atocha recovery. The Society was eligible for non-profit status, but the paperwork had not been completed, so with the assistance and advice of Rose Chibbaro, who was on the Society's Board of Directors and functioned as an auditor for the Society, that was my first task. The second was to complete the accession of several thousand coins, which were to be donated to the Society from both wrecks by Treasure Salvors investors. I was also charged with putting out a newsletter and attempting to set up the mechanism for a quarterly journal to be called "The Astrolabe".
When the primary cultural deposit of the Atocha was finally discovered in July of 1985, everyone was -- of course -- elated, and many (not including me) were surprised. Somehow, I had always known it was going to happen. My share of the surprise came when the more than 180,000 silver coins came rolling in. The task of working with coins previously discovered had given me a reasonably good overview of what the dies consisted of, but the riches coming in now were astonishing -- chests whose interior had not been penetrated by salt water and which delivered a harvest of everything from completely unpitted and uncirculated coins from the first mint at Lima -- early strikes from the period of Carlos and Juana from the mints in Mexico -- and stunning examples of the latest strikes, fully dated 1922 from the mint at Santa Fe de Bogota -- coins which had never been seen before from any other source.
I threw myself into research, reading every numismatic book in both English and Spanish that I could find dealing with early Spanish coinage in the New World. My discoveries convinced me that we had on our hands the largest and most widely divergent collection of early Spanish-American coinage ever recovered from a single source. Working on contract with Treasure Salvors to do research on the coins, I obtained permission from the Board of Directors of Treasure Salvors to put together a collection which would be called the "Research Collection" and which would include an example of every different strike found throughout the assemblage. It took me a year and a half, during which time I examined approximately 80,000 silver coins with a jeweler's loupe, and I was twice invited to New York by Christie's at their expense, once to help with the catalogue being prepared for the auction, and once to work with the numismatist there to put together a catalogue for the Research Collection. The collection went to a Treasure Salvors investor when the division took place, but fortunately, the entire project was scrupulously recorded, documented and photographed.
The other thrilling experience I was allowed was when the division took place and the percentage Mel had given to the Society included a 77.8 carat emerald, which I took temporary possession of in front of TV cameras from all over the world, including the BBC. Every time I've seen that film, I've found myself excited all over again.
In the summer of 1986, Mel funded Bleth McHaley and me to make a trip to Europe to see if we could identify certain artifacts recovered from the Atocha. We went to London, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Seville (where we saw the cannon that had been donated to Queen Sophia by Mel some years earlier), Cordoba, and finally Portugal. A number of paintings in the Prado in Madrid gave us clues to the function of certain of the silver vessels, and church treasuries provided the rest of the desired information.
After the great adventure died down, Treasure Salvors was sold to another corporation, which as part of the purchase, donated the entire Treasure Salvors museum and all its artifacts to the Maritime Heritage Society. This put the museum into a completely different category, and the Society's Board of Directors, wishing to enable the organization to qualify for full acceptance, initiated a search for a new Executive Director who would have both the experience and the academic background necessary to bring the Society forward as a qualifying entity in the museum world.
When, after several trial runs, an appropriate Director was found, I continued on the Society's staff, which by that time had grown exponentially, as Publications Director. When I took over the Society in the spring of 1985, the membership was 44 people. When I left as Director, it was hanging in there at around 400, and has grown regularly ever since. During the few years I continued with the Society after Dr. Madeleine Burnside came on board as Director, I thoroughly enjoyed the task of putting the publications together under her guidance, but in a couple of years I felt obliged to follow my own "call to the sea" as a fishing guide on the boat I had managed to purchase with the proceeds of my generous percentage in the Atocha.
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