The Search for More: Susan Funk’s (F’77) Williams-Mystic Story

Throughout her semester and at moments after it ended, Susan realized how much the accessibility of the Williams-Mystic professors adds to each student’s experience in the program.

“They’re not just there to grade you. They’re there to be your partner in learning,” Susan said.

This post was written by S’18 alumna Audra DeLaney. Audra enjoys visiting the ocean, going on adventures, and telling the unique stories of the people and places around her. 

Susan Funk _MAM
Susan Funk (Photo Credit: Mystic Seaport Museum)

You’re looking for more out of your college experience. More challenges. More questions. More big-picture thinking. More solutions. You’ve chosen to change your major from science to American history and you enjoy learning about how people interact with different environments. Your junior year, your advisor tells you about a program he believes pulls together all of your interests.

Welcome to the Williams-Mystic story of Executive Vice President and COO of Mystic Seaport Museum, Susan Funk.

When Susan’s advisor told her about the program, then recruiting students for its very first semester, he assured her that participating would be worth the risk.

“He said any program run by [Williams-Mystic founder and historian] Ben Labaree would be of the highest quality. There was a flier about the program but that’s all we knew about it because it didn’t exist yet. It was a concept rather than something you could go and observe and talk to other people about,” Susan said. She decided to take the risk and apply to the program.

Susan remembers why she chose to come in the program’s very first semester, the fall of 1977, rather than in the spring of 1978: She wanted to sail off Georges Bank in Massachusetts.

“I thought: Well, there’s a good chance that in my life I’ll have other opportunities to sail down in the Caribbean, but I don’t know that going on the fishing grounds is something that I’ll ever get to do again,” Susan said. “We also sailed into Nantucket, coming in on a traditional schooner into that old port. That was really memorable.”

Throughout her semester and at moments after it ended, Susan realized how much the accessibility of the Williams-Mystic professors adds to each student’s experience in the program.

“They’re not just there to grade you. They’re there to be your partner in learning,” Susan said.

The collaborative approach of Williams-Mystic, Susan believes, influences how students approach the world — not only as they return to their home campuses but also as they shape their careers. Right after college, Susan spent time working different jobs to figure out where and how she wanted to build her career.

Susan followed in the footsteps of one of her Williams-Mystic classmates who had gone to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland to be an observer for the Law of the Sea Conference discussions and negotiations.

She spent eight weeks living in Geneva, going to strategy sessions with the American team and listening to all of the discussions about the law of the sea. During her time at Williams-Mystic, Ben Labaree had made sure that the F’77 class learned from professionals about topics as diverse as manganese nodules, whaling, shipping lanes and more. Now, in Geneva, these very topics were being discussed and Susan had a chance to apply her knowledge from the program.

After finishing her time in Geneva, she took a job on demonstration squad at Mystic Seaport Museum for the summer.

Susan remembers one of her first days aloft on the Charles W. Morgan as part of the demonstration squad.

“I arrived a day early for training, and the supervisor suggested that I seek out the riggers to see if I could be of help in their work on the Morgan. The riggers said that if I was willing to work aloft, they had some simple tasks I could do.  Of course, I said yes!  It was amazing.  A beautiful, sunny day, the chanteyman was singing down on the wharf, and I was at the end of the yard mouthing sister hooks.  This was the right place for me to spend a summer.  And although I knew I had learned a lot from Williams-Mystic, working as an interpreter taught me so much more,” Susan said.

Susan’s work on the demonstration squad led to several different positions in the Mystic Seaport Museum’s Interpretation Department. Early in her career, she also spent time working in admissions for Williams-Mystic. Susan gained insight into other nonprofit organizations through serving on the Boards of Trustees for the New England Museum Association, the Pine Point School, and the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center. Each opportunity, Susan said, has helped her learn more, take on responsibility, and grow as a professional. A highlight of her Mystic Seaport Museum career is the 2014 Charles W. Morgan 38th voyage. Particularly, she remembers being on Stellwagen Bank and seeing numerous humpback whales, including a mother and calf. From handling sail underway to rowing in the whaleboat this experience reflected the importance of interdisciplinary thinking as we explore the past, present, and future.

These experiences reaffirmed for Susan just how unique Mystic Seaport Museum and Williams-Mystic are — particularly in transforming students’ paths long after they leave campus. She stays in contact with her classmates. “We agree that we are incredibly fortunate to be members of the first class and to continue our close friendships and ever-evolving discussions,” Susan said.

One of the First to Set Sail: Alex Agnew’s (F’77) Williams Mystic Story

“To be the first semester added an extra charge to the whole experience and I think everyone felt that way,” Alex said. “Everything was new and everything was different. At the Seaport everyone seemed genuinely happy we were there.”

This post was written by S’18 alumna Audra DeLaney. Audra enjoys visiting the ocean, going on adventures, and telling the unique stories of the people and places around her. 

It is a typical day at Vassar College in the spring of 1977. You’re minding your own business when all of a sudden Colton Johnson, the dean of students, pulls you into a meeting with a man named Dr. Ben Labaree. Dr. Labaree is in the process of recruiting students for the Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program, which got its start on a Dunkin’ Donuts napkin in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and is about to embark on its first full semester: Fall 1977.

This is how the Williams-Mystic journey of Alex Agnew (F’77) began.

“I was literally shanghaied in the hallway by the dean of students because he was going to have a meeting with Ben Labaree, the founder, and there were no students at the meeting,” Alex said. “He literally said, ‘hey you, come over here,’ and we had tea in the Rose Parlor at Vassar. It was a strange coincidence that I happened to run into them.”

Alex was a first-year student at Vassar and was looking for a change in his college education. Going to Mystic and being one of the first students to participate in the program seemed like a good fit for him.

“When I got there, I was surprised that half of the students were not sailors and had no previous demonstrated interest in anything marine,” Alex said. “As I thought about it, I realized there are not programs like this in many different topics; there are not a ton of choices. It is as much about experiential learning as it is about sailing.”

Alex remembers being incredibly excited to be among the first students to do the program.

“To be the first semester added an extra charge to the whole experience, and I think everyone felt that way,” Alex said. “Everything was new and everything was different. At the Seaport, everyone seemed genuinely happy we were there.”

Dr. Labaree made everyday experiences come to life for the students in the F’77 class.

“He loved to teach history but we all really got into the policy class and that was just so cool and creative on his part,” Alex said. “We would drill down into different topic areas. He would have speakers come and he seemed to know what was going to happen when they showed up. You couldn’t know what they were going to say. He did a fantastic job.”

The literature, history, and policy classes all stand out in Alex’s mind. He wrote his policy paper on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“It was a long effort to analyze it from a political point of view. The policy paper was the big thesis for our class,” Alex said.

Alex enjoyed being on the grounds of the Mystic Seaport Museum. On Sundays, he would work as an interpreter on the Charles W. Morgan. He also chose to take celestial navigation with Don Treworgy and Susan Howell along with his assigned maritime skill, boat building.

Sailing aboard the SSV Westward deeply affected the members of F’77.

“When we were sailing on the Westward, we caught and tagged sharks and went out into the Gulf Stream to do that. It was very rough; everyone was deathly ill. The only way to stay away from being deathly ill was to stay on deck,” Alex said.

The crew on their voyage was very knowledgeable. One of his classmates told him that the SSV Westward experience was as memorable and valuable to her as the rest of the semester.

After his Williams-Mystic semester ended, Alex still had two and a half years left at Vassar. Transitioning back to school in the spring of 1978 was challenging, as it is for many alumni. Alex used what he learned in the program to bring his campus community together.

“I began to think about all the stuff that we did at Mystic that was so much fun. It created this sense of wanting more productive and creative experiences in my life,” Alex said. “I determined I was going to start a newspaper and spent some of that spring planning that.”

The newspaper Alex started, “The Syllabus,” was all about academics and policy.

“We wrote about what professors were teaching, what students were learning, what research was going on,” Alex said.

This project had a connection to the experiential learning Alex experienced in Mystic.

“I realized that everyone else was doing really interesting stuff too. Williams-Mystic gave me the confidence to think I could do stuff like this,” Alex said. “There were 75 students writing for it and we published weekly.”

Alex also served on the Comprehensive Plan Committee and pushed hard for more experiential learning and a Great Books Program, much like common read programs that exist at colleges and universities today.

After graduating from Vassar, Alex worked for the Journal of Commerce and then went sailing for a year. The man who hired him was one of the founders of Tall Ships America, which would play a large part in his career.

“I crewed on yachts. I did 10,000 ocean miles and paid for the whole thing by trading my labor on the ship for room and board,” Alex said.

Following his year on yachts, Alex worked as a daily newspaper journalist. His experiences as a sailor and a journalist came together in 1984, when he started Ocean Navigator, a magazine on marine navigation and ocean voyaging. In 1991, the magazine began running a small tall ship called Ocean Star. In 1993, they started the magazine Professional Mariner and in 1998 Alex joined the Tall Ships America board.

In 2015, Alex and two of his sailing friends started Tall Ships Maine, an organization that believes the experience of sailing on board a tall ship as part of the crew for a week changes teens’ perspectives and helps them develop leadership and teamwork skills.

“The first year, we sent 17 kids sailing on tall ships. We sent 100 kids this year and work closely with the schooner Harvey Gamage, one of the most successful training vessels after the SEA vessels,” Alex said.

Participants go out for a week aboard a tall ship and, after their voyage is complete, can continue learning about sailing through Sea Scouts. Tall Ships Maine is trying to get the next generation excited about sailing and the maritime industry. Currently, the organization is working with 25 different schools and hopes to send 200 teens out to sea in 2019.

In many ways, Alex’s time in Mystic is connected to his career and current work in maritime education. He and some of his classmates had a mini-reunion a few weeks ago visiting the Westward (tied up at the dock in Portland, ME) and they are hoping to sail on a tall ship together again in 2019.

“These little Mystic connections are not done when you leave,” Alex reflected. “They continue to bear fruit over your whole life. I feel like I am right back in it in a way.”