, Salem, MA

May 28, 2013

LIVES: Salem's Friendship loses its best friend


---- — Everyone’s life has a story. In “Lives,” we tell some of those stories about North Shore people who have died recently.

SALEM — It’s hard to look at Friendship without seeing Colleen Bruce.

Her head, hands and heart are all over that tall ship, which she helped make a landmark in Salem almost the way the Zakim Bridge is in Boston.

Bruce, 60, who died May 13, did not build the 171-foot replica of a sailing ship from the China Trade, nor was it her vision to bring the vessel here. And she was never its captain. But, over the past decade, she probably did as much as anyone to make Friendship the centerpiece of the city’s waterfront.

A 31-year-veteran of the National Park Service, Bruce arrived here two decades ago as project manager for the repair and rehabilitation of the historic wharves at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Within a few years, following Friendship’s arrival, her role shifted.

In time, Bruce became the site’s first marine division chief, overseeing the wharves, docks and, above all, the tall ship.

“It became her baby,” said Annie Harris, executive director of the Essex National Heritage Commission. “She was really the keeper of the ship.”

Overseeing Friendship proved a challenging job considering it arrived here a shell of its future self. Actually, it was towed here from Albany with no masts or rigging. On top of that, Bruce was entering a field long dominated by men.

“She had no prior experience with ship building, but she took this on...” said Fred Atkins of Fred J. Dion Yacht Yard. “She really loved that ship and did an amazing job...She was just extraordinarily dedicated and passionate about this ship.”

If Bruce didn’t know the answer, she called somebody. Along the way, she formed a number of important alliances and friendships with people in the waterfront, boating community, City Hall and across the North Shore.

She was the ship’s advocate. On occasion, that meant going nose-to-nose with someone, but she didn’t back down, friends said. She was a fighter.

In her role as the chief of the marine division, she was responsible for ship maintenance and operations. When the ship had to go for “haul outs,” or scheduled repairs, she arranged all the details.

She worked hard to make Friendship a sea-going vessel, arranging its first big outing to Portsmouth, N.H., and scheduling other trips and public programs. She really wanted Friendship to be a living, breathing vessel, several people said.

In many ways, Friendship became her life. It wasn’t unusual to find Bruce in the office working late, or at the site on weekends.

“She was a tireless advocate for the ship,” said Jeremy Bumagin, who worked under Bruce and is now marine division chief and Friendship’s captain.

“She was just the perfect person for that ship,” said Harris, who played a key role herself in those early years as executive director of The Salem Partnership. “It was a big project. It needed that kind of champion.”

Bruce died after a long battle with cancer. Her friends and colleagues realized she had been sick, but the news was not widely known. While an important figure, she also was a behind-the-scenes person who preferred to stay out of the limelight.

Several days ago, volunteers who work on Friendship gathered at Derby Wharf to give Bruce a traditional marine send-off. On a night when a dozen generally turn out, more than 30 came.

They tipped the ship’s yards, or spars, and flew a black pennant from the masthead.

Although few may have noticed, Friendship stayed that way for a week, a tall ship in mourning for a woman who was its keeper and protector.

Tom Dalton can be reached at