March 21 was officially the first day of spring. With that advent, particularly for boaters, comes the beckoning of the water. One of the people they depend on in their ritual trek "down to the sea" is the Dockmaster — the person who keeps everything not only functioning, but also under control. At the Alexandria docks, for the past 19 years, that individual had been "Deac" Heath. Boating season 2005 in Alexandria will be different.
Seven days after spring began, March 28, Fay Egbert "Deac" Heath, Jr., died of a massive heart attack on the Alexandria docks, doing the job he loved. He was 59 years old.
Working under the aegis of the Alexandria Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Affairs, Heath became Alexandria's Dockmaster in 1986. Other than a eight month period, when he planned to move to Virginia's Northern Neck where he and his wife own a plot of land, Heath has been a fixture at City Dock.
"He was our first real Dockmaster. When we opened the marina in the mid-1980s we hired Deac. He was a dream come true," said Janet Barnett, deputy director, Program Operations, Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Affairs.
"He's really been our only Dockmaster. He was the kind of guy we all could depend on. He did an excellent job and was respected by all the boaters," Barnett said.
HER ASSESSMENT was seconded by Capt. Kip Anderson, Alexandria Fire Department, Marine Operations. "Deac always took care of us . He always kept an eye on our boat. He was extremely helpful to us. In fact, we had been working with him to help us in the purchase of a lift for our new boat," Anderson said.
Heath's longevity on the Alexandria waterfront matched that of Joe Youcha, director, Alexandria Seaport Foundation. "He had been here as long as I have. He was a great guy," Youcha said.
"I don't believe folks in this town really understood how much he was the glue that held the waterfront operation together. If it came to an operational thing he took the challenge very personally. I would bet he put in two or three hours extra everyday," Youcha said.
"Whatever was going on he was there. He was a really good neighbor. The waterfront is like a small neighborhood and he was a leader," he said.
That appraisal was buttressed by Charlotte Hall, vice president, Potomac Riverboat Company. "Deac was truly our beacon of light at the waterfront. He was both the ears and the eyes of the city at the docks," she said.
"He could tell everyone exactly what was going on at all times. He knew all the people very well and they knew him. He was our institutional knowledge here," Hall said.
Heath had no marina experience prior to employment as assistant Dockmaster, according to Parks and Recreation. His only qualification was that he owned a 20-foot cruiser. He was promoted to Dockmaster two years after being hired.
Prior to his life on the docks, Heath had been a printing and graphic arts manager for 22 years. That kept him in confined quarters, away from his love of the water and interaction with people.
FIVE YEARS AGO he was featured in the Gazette's "Alexandria Life" section. At that time he told the reporter, "I needed something outside and something different — completely different. And I found it."
Actually it was probably a mutual find. "Deac will be missed. He had that rare combination of diplomacy, knowledge of boats, sense of humor, and dedication. We were extremely fortunate to have Deac," said Robert Roland, past chair, Alexandria Waterfront Committee, and boat owner at the marina.
"He was a good friend as well. We all will miss him very much," Roland said.
"Deac Heath was one of the really great guys. I knew him since the early '80s. He was a member of the Pilots Association and we were involved with the Waterfront Festival from 1985 to '92," said Ned Chalker, past president, Potomac River Pilots Association.
Heath was also witness to the waterfront's transformation. When he arrived, there was only the Torpedo Factory Art Center and the Cherry Blossom. Now there is the Pavilion, Chart House Restaurant, individual shops, and many more slips.
Heath was not only the Dockmaster but also tourist guide, information central, reservationist, and all-round Alexandria representative. As Hall said, he was "our beacon of light."
THERE WAS ALSO another river in Deac's life, the Rappahannock. Several hours south of their Arlington home, Deac and his wife Mona owned eight acres of land and another house.
"We loved to get on the mowers and cut four of those acres and spend time looking at the water," she said. "But, he loved his job, the boats, and the boaters at the docks. He was either there or down in the country."
Deac also knew another thing about himself which is maybe why he so treasured his time "outside" and "near the water." At 39 years of age he suffered his first heart attack, according to his wife. Subsequently he suffered two minor strokes that left his left arm weakened.
"His doctor had told him that he should take it easy and not do any heavy pulling or lifting," she said. Both are part of a Dockmaster's job.
"But that was not in his nature. He believed if you're going to do a job you do it all the way or not at all," Mona Heath said.
"He was of the old school. And, he wasn't about to just do his job half way," she said.