1927 - 2009
Click here for News story from the Gloucester Daily Times
Boat creator 'leaves on own terms'
Designer Phil Bolger's suicide is 'part of his narrative,' wife says
The saddest of news
A letter from Susanne Altenburger
In the early morning hours of Sunday May 24th 2009 Philip Cunningham Bolger of
66 Atlantic Street, Gloucester, Massachusetts took his own life, out of his own
free will, shooting himself in the head with his Colt 45. I awoke later to his
absence and found his body on our property out of public sight. The matter is
under routine investigate by the Massachusetts State Police and Gloucester
He had observed the progression of declining mental faculties in earlier
generations of his family. He expressed this concern as early as forty years ago
while discussing science fiction with one nephew. Phil speculated about
developing a machine to test for senility; the patient would be killed
painlessly if the machine determined the onset of senility. The point was to
relieve the individual of any terrifying concerns about a slow, pernicious, and
By May '09 at 81 he was in excellent physical shape for his age. What Phil and
I, his wife and full business partner Susanne Altenburger had come to notice
over a number years were intermittent but mounting episodes of apparent
cognitive decline ranging from near funny to seriously disturbing. In business
it came to express itself in a less efficient design process and diminishing
productivity. On the personal level his recognition of the condition went from
not noticing, over denying it, to gradually recognizing that he would not be
spared either. We openly and soberly discussed the repercussions, options, and
likely outcomes of this unfolding reality. And he made amply clear his
insistence on controlling his final fate if at all possible.
This reality emerged amidst an intriguing series of consultancies for US Navy,
and increasing pro-bono work (1750+hrs) in an effort to prepare the Gloucester
commercial fishing fleet for the age of $5.-+/gal.
- The relationship with Navy has just recently been refreshed again in a warm
and productive encounter with our client/patron, a Division Director at NAVSEA.
- On the 'Low-Carbon' fisheries-project he recently has had opportunity to
personally present the policy-proposal to Congressman John Tierney's respectful
and encouraging reception, with key policy-advisors in both U.S. Senator's
offices studying the proposal as well. He did take great comfort in the trust
and support expressed by 40 local professional fishermen of all tribes and
fisheries, a select number of shore-side stake-holders, and the continued
encouragement by New England's Conservation Law Foundation. But after well over
six emotionally exhausting years his efforts had yet to find constructive
reflection in catalyzing jobs- and tax-base-generating marine-industrial local
and state public policy for his ailing home-port, America's oldest Seaport of
The mounting stress of working on these serious and pressing matters alongside
the regular design-work affected Phil's and Susanne's health, nerves and outlook
more and more. So much was at stake and yet options were diminishing. A broad
range of attempts to modify Phil's and Susanne's work routine to accommodate his
slowing productivity proved ultimately unsuccessful. In the end, as defined by
Phil this Sunday morning, he came to conclude that the inevitability of
progressively losing his intellectual faculties and psychological strength had
been confirmed often enough. He would not wait until he could no longer clearly
discern the curve of his mental decline and concurrent emotional weakening.
Phil's personal life and body of work were an expression of firmly defined and
ever broadened independence from deeply-entrenched conventions, intangible
superstitions, and other known limitations on the free use of mind and thus
sound judgment. He lived that way and decided to leave us that way.
He stated repeatedly that he has had 'a good ride', he marveled at many small
and larger instance of good luck, was immensely pleased to have on major
occasions in his life taken the right decisions - including asking me to join
him in life and work - and expressed no fear of dying, only his concern for
survivors. And without you all there none of this would have been more than
some obsessive compulsive need to cover paper with ink.
We both understood, along now with a growing number in his family and
friends, that there would never be a 'good time' to lose him, only that things
would most likely become worse for him and us.
Phil Bolger's body of work will remain with Phil Bolger & Friends, Inc. under
my guidance. Over fifteen years of shared life and work, Phil had progressively
made the explicit point for me to gradually assume the conceptual leadership of
the venture with more and more of the work developed by me and vetted by Phil's
deep and broad personal and historic perspective. With his death is lost his
immense personal knowledge, unceasing inquisitiveness, constructive
contrarianism, quick and warm humor, casual if not mischievous wit, and so often
joyful outlook on to the next project.
I have had to let go of my closest deepest friend, this most encouraging and
understanding master of his craft and art. I feel amputated in ways yet to be
fathomed. He counted on my and your resilience to use the spirit of his work to
make the most of our time on water in work and play.
Funeral and Memorial arrangements have not yet been made.
His request is to be cremated.
Mid-term it would seem an appropriate expression of love and respect for Phil
Bolger to consider assembling here in Gloucester the largest fleet ever of his
designs in all sizes and configurations for a memorial day on the waters that
shaped, nurtured, and inspired him. Perhaps late summer/early fall would allow
enough time for this project. Cape Ann has a campsite, numerous motels, lots of
protected waters to overnight on. As the immediate vehemence of this loss will
eventually wear off some, I would be very gratified to help structure this
event. I hope that Phil Bolger's Friends will take it upon themselves to
organize this salute to him.
Susanne Altenburger, in this time of grief with ever so important
assistance by Holbrook Robinson, and Tom and Ben Bolger who were here,
immediately, helping me focus with sound council based on personal connections
with Phil for far longer than I ever had.
Susanne Altenburger and Phil Bolger in happier times