John de Poo, 89, Bon Vivant

April 18, 1924 - Feb. 20, 2014
John de Poo, 89, April 18, 1924 - Feb. 20, 2014

       John de Poo, a man whose zest for life attracted many friends and drew him to master diverse skills, died in Key West, Fla., on Feb. 20. He had been stricken by West Nile encephalitis, but his death was caused by an aortic aneurism. He was 89 years old.

       Mr. de Poo, who divided his time between Key West and the South Fork, led an adventurous life, trying anything that satisfied his daredevil spirit, including hang gliding, skydiving, and motorcycle racing. He apparently was the first person to windsurf here, going long distances, for example from Springs to Sag Harbor. One cold winter he sailed his windsurfer on the ice, toward Gardiner’s Island. He once swam the entire width of a river in northern Florida after being stranded.

        An inveterate storyteller, he was often called on in Florida as a public speaker and an M.C. for charity auctions. He tried his hand at painting and sculpting, played several musical instruments, and had appeared in more than 30 plays. He played his harmonica for the last time during the full moon in February, entertaining friends near the fire pit in his backyard.

       Born on April 18, 1924, in Boston, he was the son of Isabelle Anti de Poo and Dr. Julio de Poo, who founded the De Poo Hospital in Key West, which is now associated with the Lower Keys Medical Center. He grew up and went to school in Key West, then attended Academia Militar de Pittman in Cuba, where he learned to speak Spanish fluently.

       The day after Pearl Harbor, at the age of 17, Mr. de Poo enlisted in the United States Merchant Marine. He served throughout World War II on oceangoing tugs and tankers, delivering fuel, troops, and supplies in dangerous situations although basically unarmed. He returned home after the war, but just two weeks later was drafted into the Army, where he spent two years as a cooking instructor.

       After leaving the service, and to please his father, Mr. de Poo attended college with the idea of becoming an anesthesiologist. It didn’t take. In the next few years, he worked at the naval base on Key West, as a deputy sheriff, and was elected a Key West city commissioner.

       First coming to the South Fork in the 1970s as a bartender at Martell’s, a popular hangout in Amagansett, Mr. de Poo soon went to work for John Caramagna, learning the construction trade as they built houses designed by the noted architect Charles Gwathmey. “He was a joy on the job,” Mr. Caramagna said this week, describing a riotous incident when four men named John had to move a scaffold. He later worked as a carpenter, and built sailboats and catamarans, functional household items, and furniture from driftwood. 

       “He was an absolute genius at the art of the practical joke, which he raised to the level of a new art form,” Judith Hope of East Hampton said. Ms. Hope, her former husband, Leif Hope of Sag Harbor, and their children, Erling and Nisse, were said to be his surrogate family. He kept up with friends by sending them collectible postcards with zany messages and funny photos of himself from wherever he happened to be.

       Mr. de Poo’s first wife, Suzie Zuzek de Poo, who remained a lifelong friend, died before him. His wife of 14 years, Lauren Chase de Poo, who survives, said his philosophy of life was simple: Less is more. She remarked on the pleasure he took in teaching teenagers the skills he was expert at, and in such things as introducing visitors to the New York subway system or the Smithsonian Institution. “His generous and loving heart made him a friend to all,” Ms. de Poo said.

       A private service was held in Key West on Feb. 26. A memorial gathering is to take place on the South Fork in the spring.