Interview with Missy Clark-Nabozny
February 7, 2001 and May 18, 2005
Missy Clark-Nabozny was interviewed by Tim in 2001 and in 2005. Missy is the granddaughter of John Simmons, wheelsman on board the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald. Missy Clark-Nabozny lives in Wisconsin is currently married with one son who served in Iraq for eight months. This transcript contains questions and answers from both interviews.
Question: Hello Mrs. Clark-Nabozny. Your grandfather was John Simmons, wheelsman. What were his duties? Had he sailed on ships long before sailing on the Edmund Fitzgerald? Other than sailing, had he ever had another job or profession?
Response: He was on a ship prior to the Edmund Fitzgerald for six months and then spent his career on the Edmund Fitzgerald. He had been on the Fitzgerald since its maiden voyage. He started sailing when he was only seventeen years of age.
Question: The theories surrounding the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald are countless, but no theory is more plausible than another. What do you think happened November 10, 1975?
Response: I think that it was from previous structural damage that wasn't repaired correctly.
Question: The sinking, after 30 years, is as much a mystery today as it was in November of 1975. Will we ever know the definite cause behind the sinking, and is it even important to know the cause after 30 years?
Response: I don't think that we'll ever know. The pieces are eroding and time is going on. There is nothing they can discover by looking at that ship or diving on it. They will never know unless miraculously someone had footage of what happened. It will always remain a mystery. For those of us who have children who are going to have children it is important. We have already come to terms with what it is, but with their technology and their need to know it, they may want to know, but I don't need to know. They are gone and it is on the bottom of Lake Superior and there is nothing we can do to change that.
Question: The Edmund Fitzgerald can be spotted in books, documentaries, gift shops, and museums. Has the wreck become too commercialized, or is this simply a way of remembering the men and the ship? Where do we draw the line between commemoration and exploitation?
Response: That is a good question. I think it has become too commercialized. So many authors want to write books with what they think happened because they have sailed and study the lakes. When you go around Michigan, it is everywhere, you can't get away from it, and I think a lot of people feel that way. It was even mentioned on Seinfeld once, and I remember that blowing my doors off. It was a brief mention and gone in a second. To people away from the Midwest it isn't, but that is why you don't hear about it anymore. Where do you draw the line? I don't know if you can draw the line because it has to run its course before people just don't want to hear about it all the time anymore. It will become more prevalent in November, but around here, it isn't even mentioned in the newspaper anymore because it has ran it's course. The younger generation in this area only knows about these men through us, they don't hear about it in the news.
Question: As Simmons' granddaughter, the details of finding out that your grandpa died are probably remembered in vivid detail even after 30 years. How did you find out, and what was your initial reaction?
Response: We originally found out by phone call from someone who had been watching the news and my grandmother was at our house at the time. It was our whole family, my grandmother, and my mother and her sister. We got the phone call and then turned on the news and started hearing all the newsflashes coming out of Duluth. All we knew up until midnight was that it was missing, not that it sunk, but that it was missing. I remember it very vividly. We had to go to bed at 10:30 and we heard the adults in the living room talking, and later that night when they found out for sure they woke us up to tell us that it had sunk (the older grandkids) so that we knew what was going on.
Question: The Edmund Fitzgerald is one shipwreck of more than 6,000 on the Great Lakes. Why is the Edmund Fitzgerald so popular compared to other shipwrecks, and do you think interest in the ship is growing or fading?
Response: I think that the popularity of the ship is probably at a standstill except for the local people. I think part of the reason it was originally so popular was because of the song, and it was a ship that should not have gone down, and with current technology it would have never sank. I think it is so heartfelt because so many people who have heard about the legend are attached to it because there were no survivors and people became very curious as well do to the song. People are also fascinated because it is a mystery, and although people can estimate, no one will ever really know the truth.
Question: Being the granddaughter of the wheelsman on board the ship, you have probably heard first hand accounts of life sailing on the Lakes. What is your opinion on the claims that human error may have played a role in the sinking?
Response: Well, nothing is infallible and I don't know. I guess my opinion is that they worked so well together as a team and had been together so long that habits are habits and one or two hatch covers could not have been forgotten easily. In my heart I want to say it isn't possible since they were like a well oiled machine, but nothing is infallible, anything is possible, and you never know.
Question: Some consider the Edmund Fitzgerald merely a wreck site, and feel photography of the ship as well as expeditions are all right. Do you agree? What are your feelings on whether or not future expeditions should be allowed?
Response: Absolutely not. It is a grave site, it should stay gravesite. I don't think anyone diving down will learn anymore today or in twenty years. If there were survivors, it would be different, but there weren't, and they need to leave it alone.
Question: What is the future of the Edmund Fitzgerald?
Response: I think that eventually it will fade away. The only people who will keep it alive are the family members, who will do their yearly ritual of saying goodbye or lighting a candle or going to the Lake and saying a blessing. Each year my sister and I go to the local city dock and throw carnations in. We have done that every year (except for the two we spent at Whitefish Point). Like a lot of shipwrecks, it eventually fades away, and you don't know the names of the ships or the crew's names. There will be many more disasters in the future much more prevalent than the sinking of an ore boat in 1975.
Question: But to some, will the Edmund Fitzgerald live on forever?
Answer: I think so, to the people who are related to the sailors. It will always be a devastating impact in their life, and they will always pass it on; not about the ship, but about the men.
Question: Approaching the 30th anniversary, what is going through your mind? Did you ever think the sinking would become such a big thing? How do you get through each year, and how do you think your life has changed as a result of the wreck?
Response: Well, we are planning on going to Whitefish Point. We went for 20th and 25th as well. I never thought it would get this big, but if it hadn't, we wouldn't have gone to Whitefish. You want to be a part of it because it is part of you, and that is how we cope. Our family became a closer family because of it, and we learned to respect the traditional family values. Even though we were raised with them, we learned to take care of each other better because we lost something so dear. My grandmother became much more independent without him to lean on and never dated another man until she died. He even lives on in the little ones.
Question: How did the 1975 wreck of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald change/affect your life and the lives of your family members?
Answer: Well, like everyone else, it left us without any real answers. We had no place to go to pay our respects, and it left my grandmother a widow (she was a strong woman). Watching her struggle by herself was awful; you could see her sadness every time you brought it up. Mom was devastated along with her sister because she had nowhere to let it go, nowhere to say goodbye, and no way to deal with it. There were 9 of us grandchildren- the other eight might not have been impacted so much, but they saw our loss, and that hurt them.
Question: What is a memory you have of your grandfather that stands out most at the present time?
Answer: The winter before his last voyage, he came home from the boat. I wanted to go skating really bad, (I loved to ice skate) and he lived five blocks from the ice skating rink. We ate dinner and he called my mother without me knowing, and surprised me by having my ice skates brought over by my mother, and then taking me ice skating.
Question: Are there any other memories that you have of your grandfather and you would like to share?
Response: Picking him up in Duluth when he was getting off the ship, and waiting in the car for him to throw his bag in the back. When he would get home, my fondest memories would be us always going for walks. We would walk from the corner store to get a soda pop and walk back to his house, while he jingled change. He always jingled his changed in his pocket. He also always visited the firemen at the firehouse a block and a half from his house. I remember the times he would sit on the edge of the couch during holidays, and fall asleep with a cigarette in his mouth (laughter). I remember his "old-timer's" green plaid hat. He always wore it constantly-he always had it on his head.
Question: What did your grandfather like to do in his spare time?
Answer: He loved to play pool, watch basketball, and walk. His wife and he played solitaire and cribbage all the time, and they hung around the house.
Question: Looking back on your grandfather's life, how would he want to be remembered, and what legacy did he leave behind?
Response: He left behind the legacy of a pool shark. (Laughter). The stories we used to hear about him as a young man were of him playing in the pool halls in Detroit and in Canada and taking on guys for 10 bucks a game, and he almost always won from what I heard. He always acted like he couldn't win at first, or like he was drunk, and then smoked them in the end- like in movies. He would want us to remember his sense of humor because he always wanted to be the funny guy. He would want us to remember his integrity since he was a man of principle, whether we always understood it or not. And he would always want us to remember him having a smile on his face.