Head down to the Walbridge Park public boat launch on a summer evening and chances are you'll see a man in a U.S. Coast Guard veteran's cap clearing leaves from the river's edge with his garden rake, offering instructions to novice boaters, or holding up a flashlight to help them move their craft into or out of the water.
Jim Chamberlin, a remarkably able-bodied 86-year-old who spent most of his career in the boat-building business, doesn't get paid to take care of the ramp. But, as a key advocate for the construction of the ramp and the adjacent dock in the 1960s, the native South Toledoan and Maumee River booster said he feels it's his duty to make sure it's maintained and that people can enjoy using it.
"It really has the potential of being one of the best on Lake Erie, except it's been more or less, I don't want to use the word neglected, but if you're not involved in boating, you really don't know it's there," Mr. Chamberlin said. "But it really is a fine facility."
Tucked behind the Toledo Zoo parking lot on Broadway Street, the boat ramp isn't visible from the roadway and many people don't know it exists. Still, Mr. Chamberlin said he'll usually help out a couple of boaters each evening, and there are always more people on the weekends.
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July 4th is the busiest night, when boaters head to the water to view Toledo's fireworks downtown. For the most recent celebrations, Mr. Chamberlin said, he stayed out until 12:30 a.m. assisting people.
The retired boatman said his main concern is a lack of lighting in the area. Although the parking lot has lights on poles, the illumination doesn't reach to the ramp itself, where it's critically needed, he said.
"When a person backs his car and boat trailer into the water, it's pitch black in that area and very difficult to get a boat on the water," he said, adding that people could also slip on the wet dock in the dark. "It has the potential for danger."
Mr. Chamberlin said he pestered the city's parks and recreation officials for months to install an additional light over the ramp, but to no avail. Finally, his son Michael Chamberlin wrote a letter to Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, garnering executive attention.
City spokesman Jen Sorgenfrei said the mayor spoke to the city's engineering services department and asked it to improve the lighting at the ramp.
She said the city is working on long-term plans for additional lamps in the area, but in the meantime crews were to be dispatched this past weekend to redirect a light toward the ramp's edge.
"Clearly it's a boater safety issue. If we want boaters to come downtown, we want to make sure they have adequate and proper access to the river, including necessary lighting," she said. "We're glad that Mr. Chamberlin made us aware of the situation."
Boater Mark Schneiderbauer, 59, who has known Mr. Chamberlin for many years, said he appreciates his friend's concern for the ramp and his almost daily presence there, as well as the stories he tells about the Walbridge Park area.
"He's a good man," Mr. Schneiderbauer said. "If he wasn't there, he'd be missed."
Even so, Mr. Schneiderbauer said he does worry about Mr. Chamberlin's own safety when he's at the boat ramp.
"I don't see that well, for crying out loud, and it gets tricky on those docks sometimes -- they move, they're wet, there are boards sticking up here and there," he said. "He could trip and fall in."
For Mr. Chamberlin, though, other people's safety and enjoyment of the river are the principal concerns.
"I feel an obligation," he said. "Boating is supposed to be fun. If all of a sudden it's not, people could just give up and go back to the golf course."
Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at email@example.com or 419-724-6272.