Enchanting Book, Intriguing Author Who Defies a Simple Biography

At Grania Brolin’s recent party in Water Mill celebrating the publication of Sam Holmes’s book, “So Long, Big Duck,” were (from left) his friend from Magnum days photographer Elliot Erwitt; Mr. Holmes; the book’s illustrator, Reynold Ruffins; graphic designer and typesetter of the handwritten MSS, Charles Grubb; the book’s printer, Chuck Miller, of TSO General in Brentwood; and Ms. Brolin. Tip Brolin Photo

Who is this 95-year-old guy, Sam Holmes, who lives in Key West but spent 20 years in Sag Harbor helping his wife, Kate Wyckoff, run Beach Plum Gardens, where the Sag Harbor Garden Center is now located on Spring Street?

He still has good friends here but younger people and later arrivals who pick up a copy of his new book for young people, “So Long, Big Duck,” featuring drawings by Sag Harbor’s 89-year-old Reynold Ruffins, will naturally wonder who the author is.

Even when somebody who knows Mr. Holmes tries to explain, people still might be puzzled: a retired National Park chief of park rangers and former amateur trapeze artist who is also the only living person with a Hudson River watercraft named for him? Circus historian who loves elephants? Collaborator with other authors on books about world history? Amateur magician who used to put on shows for kids at the garden center?

And guest of honor at a luncheon at the Lotus Club in Manhattan earlier this month, given by Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and former head of the New York Public Library, who bought 150 copies of “So Long, Big Duck” to distribute to the various branches of library?

Huh? You will still be wondering … who is this guy, Sam Holmes?

Sam Holmes with friend at Two Tails Ranch, a refuge for elephants in Williston, Florida. Fiona M. Lepperd Photo

“So Long, Big Duck” has been in Mr. Holme’s mind for years, slowly taking form on handwritten spiral notebook pages that gathered in what his friend, editor, companion and caretaker Fiona Malloy Lepperd calls the “creative mounds, mountains of paper and notes and poems” scattered all around his place near Key West, where he moved with Kate Wyckoff-Holmes around 2011. She died there in 2016.

He wrote the first chapter at a weekly poetry session at the home of Maria and Peter Mattheissen about seven years ago. Maria liked it and encouraged Sam to complete it.

Turning those pages into a sweet, enchanting yet soulful children’s book about two city kids’ summer visit to “Deep Harbor” (a dead ringer for Sag Harbor) was an effort led by Ms. Lepperd and Mr. Holme’s Sag Harbor friends Reynold Ruffins, the artist and retired commercial illustrator, and graphic designer Charles Grubb of CB Grubb PhotoGraphics.

Through their efforts, the book is now available at four Main Street locations: The Wharf Shop, The Romany Kramoris Gallery, Canio’s Books and the Sag Harbor Whaling & Historical Museum. The museum and the Sag Harbor Food Pantry will benefit from all profits. Mr. Holmes and his colleagues won’t make a dime from the book, which sells for $15.

Ask Mr. Holmes about his background and what he did for a living and he’ll tell you he grew up in Riverside, Connecticut; went to Loomis and Yale; served in the South Pacific and the Philippines as an artilleryman in World War II; worked as a newspaperman, both on the advertising and editorial sides, in Florida, North Carolina and elsewhere; and in 1957 became the photo librarian for Magnum, the photographic cooperative that supplies images to newspapers and other media. Mr. Holmes was the photo researcher for then-Senator John F. Kennedy’s 1958 book, “A Nation of Immigrants,” remembered one of his friends here.

But there was a whole new career waiting for him in the early 1970s.

“Somehow I got recommended for a job with the National Park Service at Gateway National Recreation Area,” he said in a phone interview. “What interested me was they were trying to bring the natural world to New York City school kids,” Mr. Holmes said. “I worked on the idea of bringing kids to Floyd Bennett Field,” the abandoned airport that is now a component of Gateway Park, “for camping followed by marine science study at Jacob Riis Park,” an oceanfront component of Gateway Park that’s on the barrier beach across Jamaica Bay.

“I worked also with the state parks office in New York City because they had access to natural places outside the city for the children’s enjoyment,” added Mr. Holmes, who has no children of his own, but who “inherited children,” as he put it, from his two late wives, Helen Hale Homes and Kate Wycoff Holmes: a step-son from each marriage.

The Hudson River water taxi was named for him in a ceremony about a decade ago because of his educational work as head of the Gateway Park’s ranger staff, creating environmental programs for New York City schoolchildren. Vartan Gregorian has been a friend for many years; he was married to Sam’s late cousin, Clare Russell.

Grania Brolin of Water Mill recently threw a party for Mr. Holmes while he was visiting the area with Ms. Lepperd on a whirlwind drive in her pickup that ranged from Key West to Martha’s Vineyard and Wisconsin, where they visited the Circus World Museum in Baraboo. A filmmaker, Grania met Mr. Holmes producing a film for the National Park Service about Gateway’s educational programs for inner city youth.

Mr. Holmes has fiercely loyal friends who watch out for him, she said, and she was eager to share a list of words she had written down before talking to a reporter about who Sam Holmes is: “witty, decent, courtly, modest, humanitarian in spirit, and devoted to making the world a better place in every way he can.”

Trapeze artist too? As Ms. Lepperd explained it, he started taking lessons in New York when he was in his 50s and working for Magnum. “That’s why he can still haul himself out of the pickup truck so much faster than I can!” she said.