Reflections on my grandfather, MA Petrich, Sr., builder of the Western Flyer

By Caroline Petrich

“We talked to Tony [Berry], the master and part owner of the Western Flyer, and our satisfaction with him as master increased constantly. He had the brooding, dark, Slavic eyes and the hawk nose of the Dalmatian. He rarely talked or laughed. He was tall and lean and very strong.”

John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951), ch. 3
Martin A. Petrich, Sr. Photo courtesy of the Petrich Family.

My grandfather, Martin A. Petrich, Sr., or MA, owned Western Boat Building Company, the shipyard that built the Western Flyer. She was launched in 1937 in Tacoma, Washington, built for MA’s friend Frank Berry and his son Tony, who accepted delivery of her in Monterey. The following year she would go on a voyage that would make her “the most famous boat in American literature.”

I did not know my grandfather very well. The youngest of his 26 grandchildren, I am the tail end of a procession of progeny who epitomizes the Baby Boom from its pre-war inception to its culmination with the space age. We all are a testament to his success: a Dalmatian immigrant who, with only a 3rd-grade education, manifested the American Dream of entrepreneurial vision and quiet determination to see it become so.

Like Tony Berry, MA had brooding, dark Slavic eyes, and the hawk nose of the Dalmatian. Like Tony Berry, he rarely talked or laughed. Like Tony Berry, he was tall and lean and very strong.

This is my memory of him. MA was never ‘grandpa,’ ‘gramps,’ or ‘pops.’ He was Grandfather, with a stature and presence worthy of the title. When he came to visit, Grandfather had his favorite chair. He was quiet but not unfriendly. He accepted tenderness and offered quiet, secure embraces. Still, my young self was intimidated by him.

Grandfather with my brother Richard, with Grandfather’s chair in the background, taken in 1961 or ‘62.
Photo courtesy of the Petrich Family.

I used to think he was severe, though I was conflating his reputation as a stern master at the shipyard, perhaps akin to what Steinbeck wrote about Berry, “It was useless to bet with him and impossible to argue with him.” Grandfather held to his standards; low standards—a sloppily built boat—had high consequences—the precious lives of a crew, the reputation of the shipyard, the livelihoods of workers, the fabric of the community.

Without knowing so empirically, I am certain Grandfather deeply loved being in community: the community of Dalmatians, the community of the shipyard workers and their families, the community of Tacoma, the community of his Catholic parish, the community of his kith and kin.

This mattered to him even in death. He purchased a large family plot at the Catholic cemetery in Tacoma and erected an enormous piece of marble with a commissioned carving of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. Clustered around this monument are the graves of Grandfather, his wife Mary Ellen, his sons and daughters-in-law, his siblings, his grandchildren, and great-grandchildren; even his friends, colleagues, and neighbors lie close by.

The Western Flyer’s resurrection means so much to me because it embodies all that Grandfather valued: a sound, sea-worthy boat, innovation and investment, vision and determination, cooperation and shared commitment, and faith that she will realize her purpose. How he would feel about the Western Flyer now is a mystery, though I would bet that MA would be proud and impressed.

Western Flyer sea trials by the Western Boat Building Company, 1937. Photo courtesy of the Petrich Family.
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