A good many of those who looked, listened, and lingered on the pier for the Homecoming Ceremony in the morning returned for the Gala Banquet in the evening. The evening event began out on the pier next to the ship with cocktails and hor d’oeuvres at 6:30. The attendees then moved into a huge warehouse on the pier that had been expertly renovated for this occasion. In addition to being a Celebration, this evening event was a fundraiser to help defer the cost of all the events that the Steering Committee, co-chaired by James Russell and Dagny Ashley, had been initiating and implementing for a full calendar year. Tickets cost $175 for the event and sold out many days in advance. I had been reluctant to pay so much, but ultimately decided I owed it to the blog to experience as much as I could of the city’s Celebration. I bought my ticket just in time, becoming one of the last of the 750 people who registered to attend this Homecoming Gala, honestly advertised as “A Once-in-a-Lifetime Celebration.”
The weather had remained cool and lovely for the rest of the day. Sharing drinks and appetizers for an hour with friends and strangers alongside the ship was a real pleasure. Vanessa and Christina were both there, and we all three had dressed up for this occasion. The price of the ticket included limited access to the ship, and it was quite different to walk the planks, and stand by the wheel, as an evening guest rather than a voyager.
The 750 guests had been assigned to tables of ten, and I was delighted to find myself sitting with Carl Cruz, Lee Blake, and other members of the New Bedford Historical Society. Carl had been one of the co-curators in the exhibition on Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville I organized at the Whaling Museum in 2005. He and Lee had both been instrumental in encouraging the involvement of the local community in the International Melville Society Conference on Douglass and Melville hosted by the Whaling Museum that summer. They had both been very much involved in the planning and execution of the Morgan Celebration and I was delighted when they were both called forward to accept a gift for this work on behalf of their Society.
For me, a Puget Sound native who has lived most of his adult life in northern Kentucky, the evening was exciting enough. Imagine how it must have felt for lifelong residents of New Bedford, some with ancestral roots going all the way back to the launch of the Morgan in 1841, and, in some cases, to the ship itself, to celebrate this affirmation of the city. The warehouse we were in had been made surprisingly congenial for this massive banquet for 750 persons, several of its walls being hung with huge reproductions from the 1848 Whaling Panorama owned by the Whaling Museum. The catered banquet was as splendid as you would expect for the price. . The broad buy-in by leaders of the entire New Bedford community was evident in the gallery of faces throughout the room, in the listing of nineteen different committee chairs as co-hosts on the program, and the listing of 50 additional committee members and the 9 honorary members. In those officially recognized names, you already had one-tenth of the 750 guests present.
The speeches tonight were relatively short, touching briefly on some of the uplifting themes we had heard in the morning. There was music by the Seaport Chanteymen and the premiere of a film about New Bedford by Big Ocean Media. In many ways the assemblage of people in the room were themselves the story of the evening—in their commitment to the city’s future as well as its past. But most of us probably went home that evening with the indelible memory of one particular event, listed on the program simply as “Auction: Arthur Moniz Painting Auctioned by Frank McNamara, Marion Antique Shop.”
The painting by Arthur Moniz was a watercolor of the Charles W. Morgan approaching the New Bedford Pier near the Ernestina, the one nineteenth-century sailing ship still active in the city. Prints from this watercolor had been the artistic signature for the Celebration itself and had been widely reproduced, including on the cover of the program for the Homecoming Gala. The auction came late in the evening, after the film and before coffee and dessert. Moniz is a well-respected and much loved artist in New Bedford, and it was certain that his original watercolor would be widely desired by people in the room. Before the auctioneer took over, James Russell, who emceed this event too, challenged New Bedfordites to show their civic pride by not letting this painting go to anywhere else—such as Mystic, Connecticut (well represented by a prominent table including President White and Captain Files).
Many of us had never been to an auction of this kind. We had no idea what a watercolor such as this might bring. Some people near where I was sitting thought it might bring around $500. That figure was passed very quickly as the bidding rose into the thousands, and it did not slow down. Somewhere around $25,000, there were two active bidders in distant corners of the mammoth room, each new bid being signaled by a Whaling Museum employee standing nearby with a bright red flashlight. One of these was Caitlin McCaffery, one of the major Event Coordinators for the evening. She waved her bright bidding light with almost as much passion as Foreteck had hauled on the lines. Earlier in the day Caitlin had stopped so I could take a photo of her on the pier.
After the bids hit around $30,000, there was a new bidder from a different corner of the room. The bidding remained strong even after one of the other two dropped out, leaving it a two-person race, eventually won by the late bloomer at a price of $50,000! The winner was Ann Bodzioch, a native of New Bedford who had recently returned to found her own business, happy to be able to demonstrate her gratitude to the city. Her contribution, along with the proceeds from the banquet itself, would help offset the cost of the estimated $600,000 expense of all activities related to the homecoming. I hope that Elizabeth Warren did as well in raising money for Alison Lundergan Grimes at the fundraiser that same night in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.
This Homecoming Gala, Banquet, and Auction gave a new kind of meaning to the inspirational speeches we had heard in the morning. The return of the Morgan to New Bedford via Mystic, New London, Newport, and Martha’s Vineyard had not itself changed the history or guaranteed the future of the city. But it did decidedly serve, as several speakers had suggested, as a marker that will help to “turn the page” of changes already underway to give the city a future potentially as successful as its past. This is something I, even as a sometime visitor to the city, could fully understand.
Ever since Beth Schultz and I had come to New Bedford in the summer of 1998 hoping to find a city that would help us establish a Melville Society Gallery and Cultural Center, we had witnessed a number of truncated attempts by the city to find some new way ahead that would be worthy of its past. After the Melville Society had affiliated with the New Bedford Whaling Museum in 2000, we had to stay at a series of places across the river in Fairhaven for our twice-annual meetings, as there was no hotel in downtown New Bedford itself. The coming of the Fairfield Inn on the waterfront several years ago was one of several markers prior to the arrival of the Morgan to signal the possibility of a true Renaissance for the city. Every year since then, we have enjoyed new restaurants, cafes, and galleries in town, even before the now burgeoning development of the Marine Deep Water Terminal. I am grateful to have been able to sail into New Bedford on the Morgan, and to have attended the Opening Celebration and the Homecoming Gala.