Farewell, Capt. Lou

Capt. Lou — Louis Anthony Lepry Sr. — has crossed the bar, but who he was and what he did for those around him will never be forgotten. Photo courtesy Greg Coppa

Although I’ve written many stories for Points East and other boating publications, the Capt. Lou series has generated, by far, the most interest. Readers have gone out of their way to contact me about them. If they knew Lou personally, or of him, they’d say, “That story was so Lou!” or “I remember that day, and we had so much fun!” If they didn’t know Lou they’d ask if such an interesting person really existed. He did.

Last year, in October, Capt. Lou – Louis Anthony Lepry Sr. – crossed the bar. Encapsulating my friend’s life is nearly impossible as there’s not enough time or paper, and his 89 years were well-lived.

But lovers of the Capt. Lou stories may enjoy hearing a bit more about the man who touched many people in many different ways, and not just on the water.

Lou loved the family – now quite extended – that he and Joanie, his beloved, sweet, bright-eyed, one-time Wisconsin farm girl, created. He enjoyed being a father to six well-raised, independent children who found success in diverse ways, about which he was always proud.

Joanie and Lou met while Lou, a skinny, shy kid from tiny seaside Apponaug, R.I., was a student at Notre Dame on a track scholarship. Legend has it that, for his first semester, he hitchhiked out to the campus in South Bend, Ind., with only a cardboard suitcase. His family only had so much money to give him for the trip, which forced Lou to choose, on his own, between spending money for a bus ticket or having a small cash cushion once he got there.

Throughout his life, the Captain was always in good physical shape. But I didn’t realize how good an athlete he was as a young man until one day a few years ago, when I had some time to kill before a Notre Dame-Navy football game. I wandered about the Athletic Hall of Fame at Notre Dame and stumbled on a section where Lou and three of his track relay teammates were memorialized. That brought a big smile to my face. When I asked him later why he never mentioned the accolade, he simply said, “That was a long time ago.”

I also only recently discovered that he was in the Rhode Island Interscholastic League High School Athletic Hall of Fame, not just for his athletic prowess in track (fastest mile-runner in New England, 1947), but also for promoting other team sports in Rhode Island schools.

Following college, Lou was drafted and served as an artilleryman in Korea until the cease-fire was announced. For his service to his country – and service in so many ways to his community – he was unanimously selected to be the grand marshal of the East Greenwich Veterans Day Parade in 2010. From the day he came to East Greenwich until the day he died, Lou was active at all levels in myriad civic groups, charities, church groups and professional associations.

Over the years he sold so many flowers for the Cancer Society’s “Daffodil Days” fund raiser that it probably took the entire narcissus output of a small farm just to fulfill his orders. And, for some scholarship or other, large boxes of citrus fruits were sold. As usual, Lou’s sales pitches taxed the logistical capacity of the organization handling the orders.

Beside his family, and in no special order of significance, Lou, a former educator, loved Rhode Island, boats, Narragansett Bay and people – especially young people. He mentored students well into his 80’s and did so with infectious enthusiasm. When the Captain introduced himself to a new mentoree one day, the young lady looked him in the eye and said, “Mr. Lepry, I know all about you. You taught my grandmother!” Lou laughed so long and hard that you could hear him out on Block Island.

Tiki and Leprecaun were two of the boats that took Lou’s family and guests on many outings; often more like adventures, really. It wasn’t just the sailing and the usual encounters with storm and fog that made time aboard memorable. If you sailed with Lou, as a rule you would eat with Lou. And that could mean multi-course dinners prepared right there in the galley, or on a dock. Littlenecks on the half shell, salads with ingredients like dandelions or blackberries foraged for on an island, spaghetti with clam sauce, garlic bread that would keep the evil spirits away for days, steamed lobsters, steaks that had been marinated in plastic bags (that had been sloshing around in cool bilge water for who knows how long), and his “world-famous” Apponaug roasted potatoes.

On occasion, when you cleared the harbor with Lou, you became aware that you were a captured audience, either individually or as a group. This is when you got advice, learned things you realized you should have already known, and found out “how things really worked,” based on his exceptionally wide-ranging experiences.

The Captain played many roles, sometimes several at the same time, and for some of us Lou was definitely a father figure. He could be by turns sympathetic, or tough. And he could be blunt at times, as only people his age can be about how we young ’uns should act. He often counseled us as to the correct course of action in dealing with a conflicted situation, or moral quandary. Lou drilled down to the black and white pretty quickly, and I can see now that he was seldom wrong. I wish I’d told him so more often.

Though I was a close friend of the Captain, he had legions of friends. Really! He was hopelessly and ceaselessly gregarious; he couldn’t not talk to a stranger he found interesting. Though, he never spoke much about himself. His MO was to start a conversation with a joke. Then he’d follow it with another one. If the new acquaintance cracked a smile at either of them, you could be sure there’d be a third.

A lot of us witnessed one of the Captain’s many unrestrained approaches to meeting young people. In an eatery, he’d get up and cross the dining room to another table that had a school-aged child. Under the sometimes-wary gaze of unsuspecting parents he’d ask the child, “Have you been good to your parents and teachers?” When it was confirmed that they had been, Lou would reach into his well-worn wallet and pull out a few dollar bills, advising him or her to buy ice cream with it or put it in a piggy bank. The dinners at the table would then go cold as Lou held court, but nobody complained. And the parents would later enjoy recalling the joke-telling, money dispensing and story telling old man they met while eating fish and chips.

For Lou there were golfing buddies, men and women he skied with, and Friday afternoon cronies. But I was also one of his quahogging buddies, one of the more select groups. Lou loved to dig quahogs. He ate them on the half shell by the dozen, made clams casino, stuffed quahogs or clam zuppa out of them, and, when not actually digging or cooking the bivalves, talked about them. During these hunter-gatherer outings many of the world’s problems were solved, and Lou might drop a classic non sequitur. Here’s one Lou pearl: “Greg, did you know that the Italians call Micky Mouse ‘Il Topolino’?”

It was only in the last couple of years that Lou spent less time digging littlenecks, and more time telling me where to dig for them. During this time he sat on a rock on the beach with a glass of pinot grigio. I always enjoyed the glass he saved for me as a reward for my work. But, even more than that, I enjoyed looking out over the water while Lou reminisced.

Lou was a respected and much-beloved teacher, assistant principal and principal, mostly in the town of East Greenwich, R.I. Before my time as a teacher in one of his schools, apparently a new school administrator wanted to change things up and install his own, handpicked administrative crew. Under his plan, Principal Lou would get the boot. A meeting was held in town to discuss the merits of the carpetbagger’s plan. Suffice to say, there was an outpouring of support for the Captain and the way he ran his “ship” by several hundred students, former students, teachers and residents. An exaggeration? Hardly. And, when the dust settled, the Captain was still at his desk, and the peddler of the plan was peddling his wares elsewhere.

Along with so many others, I will miss Captain Lou this first summer without him. He was larger than life, and a wonderful role model for past, and future, generations. By his actions he showed how much difference a single person in a community can make – and how to do it in a way that resulted in so much pride, laughter and happiness.

Thank you, Captain Lou.

Greg Coppa, a resident of Wickford, R.I., is the author of the books “November Christmas and Other Short Stories” and “Second Chances.” To read the previous articles Greg wrote concerning Capt. Lou, each one of them a humdinger, go to our website (www.pointseast.com) where you’ll find them in the December 2014, June 2015 and June 2016 issues.