A Farewell to Russell Drumm, Star Columnist, Author, Founder of Oceans Institute

Star writer brought ‘deep local knowledge,’ humor, and poetry to his work
David Nelson

Russell Drumm, a senior writer for The East Hampton Star, who for 33 years wrote about commercial and recreational fishing among a range of  subjects large and small, died on Saturday at Southampton Hospital of cancer. He was 68.

As a columnist and reporter, Mr. Drumm set a standard of excellence and helped to define The Star, both for the paper’s readers and for his colleagues, who looked to him as an example of how to approach the job with serious intentions but good humor.

Mr. Drumm wrote eloquently about major regional issues and events — the explosion of TWA Flight 800 above the Atlantic Ocean off East Moriches, for example — but even his descriptions of more common things, like the tug of a fish on a line, were poetic.

He wrote about surfing, sailing, the East Hampton Town Trustees, the environment, and coastal management. In his more personal pieces he tackled topics that spanned from a dog’s-eye view of a week on the lam to medical marijuana, which was published here on Dec. 31. He never seemed to run out of words and had an unparalleled ability to string them together in a way that made them particularly compelling.

“Watson Miller sat on his upturned bucket and sucked on a chicken bone. If his eyes worked, he would have been watching a tugboat pull a barge through glassy, silver-green swells, past the steep cliffs of Block Island’s south coast. Earlier, he’d have witnessed the sun spilling orange-gold onto the horizon as the Viking Starlight headed from Montauk for cod at dawn on Friday,” he wrote in a 1994 story on the Helen Keller Club on a fishing expedition for the blind.

“We are in hell,” he began his account of the night of July 17, 1996, aboard a Coast Guard cutter in the debris field of Flight 800. “And I know now: Hell is not one big city, but villages of lighted boats with blackness in between except for the fires, and except when the ‘sun’ comes out in the form of white phosphorous descending from planes high above. . . .” The Star’s publisher and then editor, Helen S. Rattray, was so moved she considered submitting the piece for a Pulitzer Prize. As it was, Mr. Drumm’s writing for the paper won numerous  awards.

“Rusty’s writing style, deep local knowledge, sense of the absurd, and tremendous number of friends and acquaintances helped make The Star what it was for 37 years. He was a mentor to several generations of reporters and calming force in the newsroom,” said the paper’s editor, David E. Rattray. “His unique voice will be missed by readers and co-workers alike.”

Mr. Drumm contributed to such magazines as The Surfer’s Journal and Smithsonian, and he was the author of three books. His first, “In the Slick of the Cricket,” published in 1996, was about Capt. Frank Mundus, the model for Captain Quint in Peter Benchley’s “Jaws.” The following year it won a Pushcart Press Editor’s Book Award for overlooked manuscripts and was repackaged by that publisher for more national exposure, which it received.

“He was a beautiful writer,” Bill Henderson of the Pushcart Press, said. “He tried all sorts of things. He was a good journalist, a great reporter, and he wrote some pretty whacky stuff. He was a real original in every way.”

Houghton Mifflin published Mr. Drumm’s next book, “The Barque of Saviors: Eagle’s Passage From the Nazi Navy to the U.S. Coast Guard,” a history of the Coast Guard’s sail-training ship, in 2001. He sailed across the Atlantic on the Eagle in 1994 as part of his research, and was invited back for several trips of varying lengths. 

In 2012, he released “A Rogue’s Yarn” as an e-book. The story of an aging surfer with “a dark secret, an obsession, and a following” drew in part upon research he had been doing for a book on the history of rope. Last year, he completed a fourth book with the working title “Confessions of a Pool Boy.”

 “He was so perceptive about the water and the wind and nature,” said his wife, Kyle Paseka, who hopes to see his final book published posthumously.

 A lifelong surfer, Mr. Drumm learned the sport during summers in Hawaii in the mid-1960s while his father was working there as a hospital administrator. He was among the first to bring it to Long Island.

“I’m lucky,” he wrote in a 1994 column. “My father’s idea of church was the beach. My memory is a beach. Because of an early addiction to surfing, I have visited some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. East Hampton’s are among them.”

“He was very highly regarded for his surfing prowess,” said Tony Caramanico of Montauk, who met him at Gilgo Beach, a surfing mecca in the Town of Babylon, as a teenager. “At that time, he was one of the top surfers in New York,” Mr. Caramanico said. “He had that classic style of surfing.”

In a 1991 piece on surfing history for The East Hampton Star, Mr. Drumm recalled his long fascination with the sport, writing: “waves were pure energy that carried the kinetic memory of other days in faraway places across the curved face of the earth, to be spent in a tube of rolling glass custom-made for posturing.”

He taught his daughter, Melissa, to surf at an early age and then introduced her to breaks in Hawaii, Tobago, Indonesia, South Africa, St. Barth, and elsewhere. She sailed with him aboard the Eagle, too.

When she was about to turn 9, her father and Mr. Caramanico asked her to design a custom board for Mr. Caramanico’s shop in Montauk, and then surprised her with it for her birthday, she recalled on Tuesday. She grew out of it, and it was sold, but a few years ago, Mr. Drumm found it for sale on the beach, bought it, and sent it to her in Hawaii, where she was living at the time.

Surfing was the start of many friendships with people from all walks of life. It was in the waves that he met the musician Jimmy Buffett, who became a friend. For a time he managed a book club on Mr. Buffett’s website, the perfect sideline for a man who read voraciously. 

Mr. Drumm was a founder of the Oceans Institute at the Montauk Lighthouse Museum, a showcase for the history, science, culture, and art of surfing. “He was such a driving force, so exciting, and so brilliant, and he had so many ideas,” said Bettina Stelle, another museum founder and board member. “I think it’s his legacy.”

In his own words from a January 2015 column in The Star, he wanted “to make the science-surf connection in people’s minds — not only to explain the meteorology, geography, and oceanography that makes and shapes waves, but to get across to the uninitiated the love of the sea, and the accompanying desire to protect the marine environment, that comes from making oneself part of it.”

The institute’s first installation last year featured surfboards made by some of the Long Island board builders he surfed with back in the 1960s: Charlie Bunger, Bob Hawkins, Jack Hannon, Peter Lutz, and Jim Campbell.

He had also worked from time to time with the Montauk Historical Society, a relationship that allowed him to occupy the easternmost office on Long Island, at the Montauk Lighthouse.

Mr. Drumm began as an ad salesman and reporter at The East Hampton Star in 1983. He came to the newspaper after getting to know Montauk during summers in the 1960s, surfing and working in restaurants. In 1985, he turned to writing full time, primarily covering the waterfront. The same year, he wrote a story about the war in Vietnam after traveling there with a New York State delegation that included combat veterans of the war, among them Montauk’s John Behan, then an assemblyman.

In writing about fishing, he covered a period of massive upheaval for the East End’s baymen in the late ’80s and early ’90s, which was marked by the loss of the striped bass fishery and the outlawing of haul-seining. Together, the regulations effectively ended a centuries-old tradition of near-shore commercial fishing.

For most of his time at The Star, Mr. Drumm also reported on the East Hampton Town Trustees, the nine-member elected body that oversees most of the town’s beaches and bottomlands on behalf of the public — a responsibility granted by colonial patent.

“The trustees always wanted to be recognized by the town board and other levels of government as having a role, having a place, not just as some old colonial thing that was irrelevant, and he did recognize that,” said Diane McNally, a trustee since 1990. “He respected the board of trustees and that came across in his articles.”

In his “On the Water” columns, he wrote as much about the fish being caught as the colorful characters and the tales they told — tall and otherwise. “You kind of didn’t know what you were going to get, but whatever it was you knew it was going to be interesting,” said Harvey Bennett of the Tackle Shop in Amagansett, a longtime source.

The column gave Mr. Drumm plenty of legitimate opportunities to get out on the water and indulge his love of the outdoors. In recent years, his sloop, Leilani, a Bristol 29.9 designed by Halsey Herreschoff, made frequent appearances.

Russell Malcolm Drumm was born in Syracuse on Feb. 8, 1947, to Russell Drumm Sr. and the former Rita Hitchings. He grew up in Levittown, and graduated from the Trinity-Pawling School and Colgate University, where he played lacrosse.

He had a master’s degree in film from Columbia University and worked as a cameraman and assistant editor in New York City in the 1970s on projects including “Harlan County, USA,” a documentary by Barbara Kopple that won an Academy Award in 1977. He made Montauk his home in 1974, working as a deckhand on a lobster boat.

Puzzled over how to make use of Jonah crabs, a lobster by-catch, he invented a processing method to extract their meat. He went into business for himself, opening Sweet Crab, at the former New York Ocean Science Lab on Fort Pond Bay in Montauk. He ran the company until 1980, when he sold its equipment and inventory to a Canadian firm.

Whether it was an invention like that, a museum about surfing, or a skiing trip to Switzerland, “He always had great ideas,” Ms. Paseka said. “He never lost that joy and innocence.”

The couple met in 2004 and were married on Aug. 2, 2008. It was the third marriage for both. “Rusty always said, ‘the third time’s the charm,’ ” she said. “There was nothing ordinary or common about him. He was never negative; he was never mean. He never got stressed out. Petty things didn’t faze him. He had such wisdom. . . . He was romantic and musical and he could dance the pants off anyone in the room. He could skate like a dream and ski. . . . The sky was bluer when you were with him.”

His daughter, Melissa Drumm-Flaherty, lives in Springs. Mr. Drumm is also survived by a granddaughter, and by Ms. Paseka’s children, Cody Filardi of Buffalo and Dylan Filardi of East Hampton.

A graveside service was held yesterday at Fort Hill Cemetery in Montauk, followed by a reception at the East by Northeast restaurant. The Star will hold a memorial gathering today from 3 to 7 p.m. at its office on Main Street in East Hampton. A surfers’ paddle-out is planned for the spring.

Memorial contributions have been suggested to the Oceans Institute, c/o the Montauk Lighthouse Museum, 2000 Montauk Highway, Montauk 11954 or to the Montauk Fire Department ambulance company, 12 Flamingo Avenue, Montauk 11954.

 

Russell Drumm, on the motorcycle at center, posed with fellow surfers in a late ’60s promotional shot for the Bunger Surf Shop. Also pictured, from left, are Beth Campbell, Charlie Bunger, Jim Hanley, a model whose name is not known, Roland Eisenberg, and Eric Eastman.