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Captain of Park Point, neighborhood uniter, has died

Tom Mackay was an almost lifelong Park Point resident and former Vista Fleet captain known for his friendship, his kindness and his knowledge of the geography of the bay.

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Tom Mackay sits by the Canal Park plaque honoring Edgar Culbertson in April 2017. Mackay was friends with Culbertson, who died in an unsuccessful rescue attempt of three brothers swept off the pier in 1967. Clint Austin / File / News Tribune
CLINT AUSTIN

Near the S curve on Duluth's Park Point on Monday morning, there was a new handmade sign attached to a fake buoy — a tribute to a boat aficionado, retired Vista Fleet captain and the community’s great uniter who died last week.

“Bon voyage, Capt. Tom Mackay," the sign read.

Across the street was another: “Aye Capt Tom Mackay Always helping and a friend. Park Point will miss you. Farewell.”

Mackay, a 77-year-old lifelong Park Pointer, known by many as “Captain Tom,” died unexpectedly Thursday, Nov. 4 . He was remembered this week by friends, family and neighbors as an artist, an iceboat — and regular boat — enthusiast, a helper, a problem solver, a protector, someone who was easy to get along with and a man proud of his Scottish heritage.

Mackay decided years ago that there would be no funeral.

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“He was just a regular (Park) Pointer,” said Mark Elden, a longtime friend who grew up admiring Mackay and made the buoyed sign at the curve to send him off. “Some people are just really great neighbors. A big chunk of our heart and soul is torn out.

“He’s been around forever.”

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A pedestrian walks by an old buoy with a sign wishing Tom Mackay "bon voyage" Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

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Mackay was among a small group of Park Pointers who have lived on the sandbar for their entire lives — save for four years with the U.S. Navy. He had lived on both the Lake Superior side and the bayside. He kept a ship wheel in his front yard. In the back, he kept a collection of national flags, a dock with decorative plates bearing his last name, and a glowing buoy ball that changed to muted neon shades.

Elden, about a decade younger than Mackay, remembered seeing him riding in a car with two bench seats and no body, just the chassis, after Mackay came home from Vietnam.

“That was pretty hilarious,” Elden said, and then added. “You don’t realize how much somebody can be a part of your life until they’re gone.”

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Mackay started working on the Vista Fleet in 1970 and once told the News Tribune that it was “the only tourism thing in this part of town at the time.”

It was work he continued to reference even after retirement. He told a reporter in 2005 that he had probably caused the Aerial Lift Bridge to raise more than anyone else — a statistic he had recently offered to a neighbor while bridged, according to fellow Park Point friend Diane Gould.

Captain Tom and Liz Mackay met and fell for each other during gatherings at the Lafayette Community Center, according to family.

They were married for 38 years.

“They’ve been ideal,” said Mary Mackay Gaidis, Tom Mackay’s younger sister. “Such a good team.”

Gaidis described her older brother as her protector and best friend. He opened doors for her. He was close to her children and taught her 9-year-old grandson to use a runabout.

“His absolute love for every child was immeasurable,” she said.

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The Park Point community bulletin board farewells Tom Mackay on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

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For the artist behind Dock 5, meeting Mackay was integral to creating the life she wanted when she moved back to Duluth from San Francisco in 2008.

“One of the things motivating me: I was hoping to find a real sense of community by living on Park Point,” said Natalija Walbridge , who creates hand-illustrated canvas bags and more in her home. “Being just two doors down, he was one of the first people to reach out to me. He was ready to be friends with anyone who passed by here and he helped us to get to know each other.”

He was one of her best friends, she said, and biggest supporters. He had recently sent a news tip to a local television station about all the masks Walbridge made during the pandemic. And after her car was totaled in 2014, Mackay offered up his red truck labeled "Park Point Affluent Poor" to use weekly for her errands.

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Captain Tom Mackay in his younger days. File / News Tribune

She described the neighborhood as one with residents who look out for each other — and Mackay as the instigator behind that sense of community. He was someone who regularly shared with those around him.

David Johnston has lived across the street from the Mackays since he moved to Duluth from Ely in 2010. He described standing in the yard with Mackay, who stopped passersby to introduce both of them. Mackay's familiarity with Park Point gave him access to the house histories of newbies who had moved to the island, even on homes 10-15 blocks away.

"A lot of people thought of him as a ship captain," Johnston said. "I thought of him as a bridge builder."

Gould, who has lived on Park Point since the mid-1980s, said that after she and her husband have put away the boat for the season, Mackay would let he and their dog use his skiff to get to Hearding Island.

“Everybody on Park Point is a neighbor of Tom Mackay,” she said.

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Mackay was a regular source for News Tribune reporters on all things Park Point, whether it was a question about water levels, the muddiness of water on the bay, or the frequency of bear sightings on the island (before 2011, he told the News Tribune that he had only once before seen a bear out there).

But Mackay wasn’t just a go-to source — he also wrote letters to the editor and was in communication with reporters and editors at the newspaper. Especially if something was incorrect.

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“Capt. Mackay called us frequently over the years to discuss stories we had published, offer story tips and gently correct us from time to time if we had an error about Lake Superior or the bay,” Executive Editor Rick Lubbers said. “He was passionate about that geography and was never shy about making sure we got it right.”
This was important to him, Mackay explained in a 2007 letter to the editor , because he had seen emergency responders misdirected by bad information.

“Superior Bay is between Park Point and the Blatnik Bridge,” he wrote. “St. Louis Bay is between Blatnik Bridge and Bong Bridge. Emergency responders rely on accurate information.”

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Mackay had an annual tradition to remember an old friend who died tragically while trying to save three boys who had been caught in the big winds and waves over Duluth ship canal's north pier on an April night in 1967.

Every year, Mackay brought flowers to the pier’s plaque to honor Culbertson — three flowers on one side, one on the other.

His community-mindedness continued even this fall. Mackay had donated a golden anchor that could serve as a trophy in border battles between the College of St. Scholastica and the University of Wisconsin-Superior’s women’s soccer teams, according to a news story reported by Fox 21.

And on his last day, Mackay and his friends, Dan O’Neill and Elden, removed Walbridge’s dock for the season — the same crew that had put the dock in the water in mid-May.

“It was a beautiful day and everyone was in good spirits,” Walbridge said. “They stood around afterward and had a nice long visit and were talking about different fishing adventures they’d had. I was soaking it in. I look forward to it every year.”

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