Features

The Old Man and the Lake

When veteran sailor Conrad Callicoatte drowned in tiny White Rock, his friends and neighbors were mystified. Especially the ones who didn’t know he sailed.

On June 25, on the southern end of White Rock Lake, Conrad Callicoatte’s head slipped below the surface, and the water claimed him.

But just over a week later, on the other end of the lake, the Fourth of July party at the White Rock Boat Club, where he was a member, went on as planned. Callicoatte wouldn’t have wanted people to waste their money. He was a difficult man to know, cinched tight against the outside. Still, the members of the club felt like they knew at least that much about him. During the last five years of his life, they had gotten to know him just about as well as anyone could.

If there was a place the old man could open up, if only slightly, it was on the end of a pier or the deck of a sailboat. When he couldn’t be near the water, Callicoatte carried it with him. The ringtone of his phone was the sound of waves and of birds trilling above them. He had been a sailor for more than half of his 80 years and it had taken him all over the world, to boats and bodies of water big and small. White Rock Lake, and his membership in the boat club, was the last port of call for him.

The party was one thing, but the wake—also held at the club’s bare-bones headquarters on the northeast shore of White Rock, about a week later—was different. Callicoatte would have thought that was making too much of a fuss. He didn’t lock his doors, showered only at the gym, was frugal with money. He was a man who rarely caused a ripple if he could help it. But they did it anyway. A small fleet of boats sailed over from the Corinthian Sailing Club down the shore, some of them flying black streamers.

“The sky was his sanctuary, the dock his church, and nature his religion,” said Robert Hunt, the club’s commodore, at the end of his short eulogy. “And that is why it is right for us to gather here to remember him.”

It was a brief ceremony. Callicoatte’s daughter, Kim, also said a few words (noting his interests included “finding the cheapest gas”), and Dennis Cavalier, a piano player he liked to listen to, performed. Then Hunt read from Elizabeth Clark Hardy’s poem “The Unknown Shore.”

Finally, it was time to ring the eight bells, a nautical tradition to mark the passing of a sailor, signaling the end of his final watch. There was a moment of silence, and it was over. Only a Viking funeral might have offered a better send-off. And given how Callicoatte lived his life, Hunt was right. This was the only way to say goodbye.

“It’s a tragedy,” says Rex Lofland, who has been a member at the club for 17 years and taught sailing there for four. “And yet it’s kind of poetic.”

Months later, however, a question remained among the members of the boat club: how did such a veteran sailor meet his end at a relatively insignificant, silt-filled body of water? And another: who really was Conrad Callicoatte anyway?

The answers to both are only guesses.

The night Callicoatte disappeared and the next day, when members of the Dallas Police Department dive team recovered his body from the murky bottom of the lake, there were news stories and short TV clips. They were all scant in detail and naturally filtered in the rosy glow of obituary. People are always the most beloved on the day they die.

But when you get further away from that day, and especially when you leave the water behind, it becomes more difficult to recognize the man in those stories, the cherished longtime member of the boat club with the friendly smile. You hear whispers of things—money trouble, salacious stories that might be nothing more than gossip. Part of the picture becomes clearer. Some of it fades almost completely.

It would be fair to say that no one ever completely knew Callicoatte. There was territory known only to himself. Even with Jo Lynne Merrill, his girlfriend for almost two decades, he would only share himself up to a point.

“He always kept large parts of himself hidden,” Merrill says. “I respected his privacy.”

A version of that answer comes up often when talking to people about him. He was a ghost long before he was dead.

Here is what we do know. Callicoatte was born in Houston on August 26, 1936, and, almost from the start, he was on a boat with his father, Conrad Sr., exploring the Gulf Coast. It was the beginning of his love affair with the water and especially the strong currents off Texas and Mexico. After Callicoatte started sailing seriously, in his mid-30s, he developed an intimacy with the coast that would rival that of a cartographer.

“He knew every inch of the bays and intercoastal waterways from Port Isabel up to Galveston,” says Hunt, the commodore.

In the weeks before he died, Callicoatte helped Hunt prepare for a five-day sail in the Texas intercoastal bays. “He walked me through, several times, every twist and turn, and what I could expect when I go into Espiritu Santo Bay, and what I could expect when I go into Corpus Christi,” Hunt says. “And he gave me a bunch of charts.”

But Callicoatte spent the majority of his life away from those waters. He graduated from Texas A&M in 1958 and moved to Dallas shortly after, to a duplex across the street from Glencoe Park where he spent the rest of his days. In North Texas, he worked as a civil engineer, first for the city of Denton, where, at 24, he became the youngest member of the municipal government. It was enough to earn him a five-paragraph story in the Denton Record-Chronicle, complete with a head shot. In it, Callicoatte is handsome and granite-jawed, like a human Wikipedia entry for American Man, 1960.

“Apart from those first few months of new-love intoxication,” Merrill says, “Conrad was little more open and expressive in private than in public.” More than anyone, she knew the truth of it: he was more at home—maybe only at home—on the water.

He’d go on to work for other cities—Granbury, Mesquite, Marshall, Aubrey, Allen—almost all of them as a consulting engineer with the Arlington firm Graham Associates. And after spending more than 30 years helping to build North Texas, generally in the ground-level ways people take for granted, he retired to a life mostly spent in the pursuit of leisure. Not just sailing, but fishing, hiking, skiing, and, more often than not, tennis at the Dallas Racquet Club. That’s where he met Merrill.

Callicoatte was married three times—the first union giving him Kim, his only child—but Merrill was his most lasting relationship. In the mid-1990s, they fell into a group of friends, most of them single, who met for regular Thursday-night tennis matches at the club. Out of that grew group trips to Lake Texoma, where they’d sail on a Catalina 30 that Callicoatte owned with his friend Don Taylor and kept docked at Grandpappy Point Marina. There were charter trips to the Caribbean and ski vacations in Colorado, dinners and country dancing all over.

“Conrad was usually the leader without ever being the focus of attention, the quietest but most knowledgeable and competent of the group—the fatally attractive, strong, silent type,” Merrill says. “By the summer of 2001, I somewhat grudgingly gave up denying the obvious and we were a couple.”

She remembers a man who rarely smiled and laughed even less. “He appreciated the funny things in life in his own understated way, a twitch of the mouth passing for a belly laugh,” she says. “He was not a jokester, but was known to make quiet, straight-faced, hilariously self-deprecating comments audible only if you were paying close attention.”

Together, they sailed many of the world’s waters—the San Juan Islands, the Sea of Cortez, the Adriatic, the Ionian, the Turkish coast of the Aegean. In 2007, he bought an Island Packet 31 named Mind Time that he kept at the Serendipity Bay Marina in Palacios, on the Texas coast, and they’d go there monthly. “Those were happy times for both of us,” she says.

They talked of marriage or maybe living together, but it never happened. They just kept on the way they always had. But even after all that time, there was a divide she could not cross. “Apart from those first few months of new-love intoxication,” she says, “Conrad was little more open and expressive in private than in public.” More than anyone, she knew the truth of it: he was more at home—maybe only at home—on the water.

Callicoatte and his daughter, Kim, spent just about every weekend together on a lake somewhere, as soon as she was old enough, usually fishing, sometimes water skiing. “I was about 4!” she says of the first time her father—who was, for a time, a competitive water skier—put her behind the boat. After he bought his first sailboat, a Catalina 22, when she was 10, they’d drive up to Lake Texoma to sail.

Like it was with everyone else, their relationship was more difficult with him the farther they got away from the water.

Though they were never very close, Kim did get a glimpse of the real Conrad Callicoatte. Chris Dawson never did. She had no idea that the man who lived next door to her for almost five decades was a sailor. When Callicoatte disappeared, Dawson couldn’t figure out what he was doing on the lake. And when he was found, the widow of rockabilly legend Ronnie Dawson didn’t know the man who appeared in the news stories and TV clips after his death. That wasn’t the surly neighbor—“crude and rude” is how she puts it—who had lived on the corner all that time.

Dawson never knew what she’d get with him. “Some days he would speak and be cordial, some days he would tell me to keep my goddamn dog from barking,” she says. “Or he’d just ignore me altogether.”

In 50 years, you’d expect to learn something about your neighbor just through osmosis. But Callicoatte wouldn’t allow that.

“Conrad, as my sister says, is not your go-to neighbor,” Dawson says. “He was tight as Dick’s hatband. He’s got two big pecan trees in his backyard and one of them is all but lying on my patio cover and my garage. I had asked him if he would at least consider getting the tree people out to trim back one side of that tree. He said no. I said, ‘Well, Conrad, it’s going to fall on my house.’ And he said, ‘Well, we’ll worry about it then.’ ” They hardly spoke after that.

Callicoatte was friendlier with Christopher Watt, a Lower Greenville bartender who rented the other half of his duplex for about 13 years. Watt and his girlfriend moved in after they saw a tiny For Rent sign—the size you might find in the back window of a pickup for sale—staple-gunned to a tree out front. The rent was cheap, $595 a month, the deposit was even cheaper, just a hundred bucks, and Callicoatte didn’t even ask them to fill out an application.

When they walked away, Watt’s girlfriend asked, “Was that guy—is he a pervert? Is he on dope, or what’s going on, because something is not right.”

Living next to him didn’t completely change that opinion. “He was an odd dude,” Watt says. “Even the dogs had weird names. When I first moved there, there was Boot, like a cowboy boot. It wouldn’t shut the hell up. And then he had Cap, as in a baseball cap. And then there was Buster, his border collie.”

But though he found him strange, Watt knew Callicoatte as a laid-back, somewhat helpful landlord—“As long as it wasn’t money out of pocket,” he says—who didn’t bother him about much. The most he ever asked of Watt was to watch Buster so he and Merrill could pile in his truck and go sailing somewhere.

“That’s all he did,” Watt says. “And then he ended up drowning in a pond when he’s been in pretty much every ocean on the planet. That’s just an odd way to die, man.”

Maybe it isn’t. Callicoatte left behind plenty of mysteries and contradictions and inconsistencies. For example: he was penniless when he died, his daughter says. But he wound up that way because he had a strong connection to the Filipino community, thanks to a former business partner. The man who was “tight as Dick’s hatband” went broke helping out many of the families financially.

“I didn’t know them directly,” Kim says, “but I did get several nice notes from people who said he was like a father to them.”

Though he was described in some stories after his death as a “longtime member,” Callicoatte’s association with the White Rock Boat Club began fairly recently. In 2012, he sold his boats at Lake Texoma and Palacios and joined up.

“I think it was the beginning of his retirement from sailing,” Merrill says. “He loved the club and the lake.”

There is a better than good chance that you could live in Dallas your entire life and never get closer to White Rock Lake than the end of a dock. More people use the 9.3-mile hike and bike trail than the water it loops around. But when Callicoatte came to the lake, he joined a dedicated group of sailors, mostly split between the White Rock Boat Club and its neighbor on the northeast shore, the Corinthian Sailing Club. The Corinthian has been at the lake since 1939. The White Rock Boat Club is a relative upstart, founded in 1961.

It wasn’t always this way. In its early years, White Rock Lake was a close-in vacation spot, not surrounded by the city yet. There were boats—sailboats and speedboats and party barges, people skiing on garage doors and whatever else that would float—and a beach and bath house on the east shore. It was the largest swimming area in Dallas, attracting as many as 100,000 beachgoers during a season.

Under current: Callicoatte spent as much time as he could around water. And when he couldn’t be on a lake or ocean somewhere, he carried it with him. His phone’s ringtone was the sound of waves.

None of that is why it was built. White Rock Creek was dammed over 350 days in 1910 and 1911 as part of the Long Range Water Supply Committee’s recommendation to build a reservoir to help the city deal with regular droughts. On April 27, 1914, it was finally filled, holding 5.8 billion gallons of water. Its present course was set a few years later when Mayor Joe Lawther proposed circling the new lake with the road that now bears his name. By November 1923, it had become such a scenic spot, popular with hunters and fishermen and weekend sailors, that a magazine published by the Dallas Chamber of Commerce could somewhat plausibly compare it to a lake in Switzerland.

Everything changed in the 1950s. The beach was closed during a massive drought so the lake could once again be used to help supply the city with drinking water. Not that there was much to be found. In 1956, drought conditions grew so dire that, according to Jimmie Sue Mason’s history of White Rock Lake in Sketches of a Growing Town (1991), “the lake had become a virtual desert of silt. Only tiny puddles were visible in what had once been the center.” The lake’s level fell 6 feet below the spillway, exposing the wreckage of sunken boats on the lake bottom.

(A quick aside: White Rock has always had a problem with silt. The lake was first dredged in 1937, and again in 1955 and 1974. The last time came in 1998, and it doesn’t take a civil engineer to see that it is long overdue for another round, with mounds of silt peeking over the surface in Sunset Bay and elsewhere.)

The drought also caused the Dallas Sailing Club to leave for Lake Dallas, and neither swimming nor the club ever returned to White Rock. On top of that, motorboats with engines greater than 10 horsepower were banned by the Dallas City Council in 1956, because of overcrowding and increasingly frequent squabbles between sailors and speedboat owners. Among other things, that put an end to Bonnie and Johnny Williams’ party-and-dance boat, the Bonnie Barge, with room for 150 people and a $50 nightly rental, open since 1946.

This left sailing.

There has been a boat club at the lake since 1928, when the Dallas Sailing Club opened, and it held the lake’s first regatta in 1932. Boats were heavier then, and almost no one owned a trailer, so clubs were necessary for anyone who wanted to sail. The White Rock Sailing Club followed, in 1935, and then the Corinthian. Permanent judging stands were erected in the water for races.

At its height, in the 1970s, the lake was full of Snipes and Seagulls, smaller, inexpensive boats built for speed. According to an August 13, 1972, Dallas Morning News story (“Sailing on Boom”), White Rock was home to an estimated 2,500 sailors, with four active clubs (the Corinthian, White Rock Boat Club, White Rock Lake Sailing Club, and the Snipe Club) and the most racing activity of any lake around.

While the boom is over, the judging stands long since dismantled, sailors remain at the lake, men and women like Conrad Callicoatte, their souls only at full sail on the water.

The White Rock Boat Club didn’t have many members like Callicoatte. “A lot of people join just because they live in the neighborhood and they want to get into sailing,” says Lofland, the club member. Callicoatte helped him teach sailing. “It’s really rare that we get somebody that’s like, you know, a salty dog, that’s been around the world sailing.”

The club is more casual than the Corinthian, with fewer racers and more tinkerers. The Corinthian is a racing club, hosting six regattas a year; the White Rock Boat Club might host one. There is as much emphasis on the “club” as the “boat.” They have fantastic parties, and members come by just to sit on the dock and shoot the breeze with each other.

Because members lease their slips from the club instead of buying them outright, it makes sailing more approachable. A perfectly seaworthy boat can be had for less than $1,000. The bigger difference, though, is the club’s Sailaway program, which allows associate members to join without buying their own vessel. They can share one of the club’s five boats, a fleet of four Flying Scots and one Harpoon.

When Commodore Hunt—a professor at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology who had never sailed before—joined seven years ago, he says membership had dwindled to 80. Since he joined, the rolls are full again, with between 170 and 180 family memberships and around 120 boats, the most space that the club’s bylaws will allow.

The relaxed nature of the club has attracted newer members like Larry Kousal, who signed on four or five years ago. He came to the lake first for the bike trail and still rides three or four loops a couple of times a week. After he joined, he’d come by the club’s boathouse following his ride, to drink a beer and have a sandwich.

“I spend more time piddling with boats than I do sailing them,” Kousal says.

He found a kindred spirit in Callicoatte. As soon as he came on board, Callicoatte unofficially took over the Sailaway program, keeping the fleet maintained and taking prospective members out on the lake to make sure they could handle the boats. He was always at the club, working on one of the boats or helping Lofland with his sailing class.

When Kousal came around, Callicoatte would join him on the patio for half an hour or so, staring out at the water and talking, occasionally about the news of the day, but inevitably about sailing or the club, always skimming the surface. Buster was usually there, too—Kousal recalls the dog stealing his sandwich. (Which makes sense: Callicoatte’s neighbors describe him as an indifferent dog owner.) They both liked the technical side of sailing, the physics of making a boat go, the preciseness of it. They were drawn to the way a boat created a conversation between a sailor and nature.

On a Thursday afternoon in August, Kousal patiently explains Bernoulli’s principle of lift on a heavily used dry-erase board in the club’s boathouse. Taped to the board is a photo of a heavily bearded sailor with a parrot on his shoulder. Kousal found it and put it there. The caption:

Question: How long does it take the average person to become a sailor?

Answer: An average person will never become a sailor!!

Conrad was not an average person!!!

“It fit me perfectly, and I think it fit Conrad, too,” Kousal says. “You understand and you feel comfortable with the forces involved.”

They were also aware of how easily the lake’s regular gusts of wind could send one of the club’s Sailaway boats over on its side. It happened all the time. Flying Scots and Harpoons are classified as dinghies, meaning there is no ballast down below, just a centerboard—a fin in the middle of the boat that keeps it from sliding sideways. If you’re surprised by a gust of wind, Kousal says, your first line of defense is to release the cam cleat controlling the main sail. The boom goes out, taking the main sail with it. It doesn’t give the wind anything to hang onto. The boat stays up.

But there isn’t much time: “You don’t have a second. You don’t have two seconds. It’s almost instantaneous,” he says. “These boats are somewhat unforgiving in that respect. I personally have never come to terms with that.”

The lake has an early warning system. The water is pretty consistent all the way across, an even gunmetal gray from shore to shore. When a gust of wind is traveling across it, you can see a dark patch heading toward you. But not always. Down by the spillway, on the south end of the lake, even an experienced sailor can be ambushed. The wind travels over a hill and then it is on top of the boat before you know it.

“The lake is so small that you can be surprised real quick,” Kousal says. Boats go over.

It all leads to a question Kousal won’t ask. But Lofland will. “You know, the guy wasn’t wearing a life vest. Come on, man: what the fuck were you thinking?”

On the afternoon of Sunday, June 25, Callicoatte took a prospective club member out on the lake to approve her for the Sailaway program. The woman had grown up around Eagle Mountain Lake and had been sailing all her life, mostly on Lasers, small, single-handed dinghies. That day, they were going out in one of the club’s Flying Scots, big enough for a crew of two or three.

When they got on the boat, she noticed there was water at the bottom. A pair of blue life jackets were in the water, covered in spiders. Callicoatte didn’t grab one—he never did, even though Commodore Hunt asked him to, at least on Sailaway trips—so she didn’t either.

They set out, headed south from the club toward the spillway. The weather had been strange all weekend. Friday was the hottest day of the month, hitting almost 100 degrees. Then a surprise cold front came through Saturday, dropping the temperature into the low 70s. It was warmer on Sunday, but now the wind was unpredictable. At White Rock Lake, the summer wind normally comes out of the south. Occasionally it blows in the opposite direction. On this Sunday, it was coming out of the east.

“And it was very inconsistent,” the prospective club member says. “And so we sailed for a while and the wind picked up, but it was intermittent. We’d have enough to sail and then we wouldn’t have too much wind.”

After they’d been on the water an hour or so, the wind frustrating them both, Callicoatte suggested that they head back to the dock whenever she was ready. She told him she was going to wait for a minute, until there was a little more wind, and he agreed.

“Sometimes, if you don’t have enough wind, you pull the rudder and don’t get all the way over,” she says.

When there was finally enough breeze, she turned the boat around. That’s when a huge gust of wind came.

The Flying Scot tipped over onto its side, throwing both of them into the water. While the water gets deeper near the spillway, maybe as much as 30 feet, most of the lake is about as deep as a nice swimming pool, if that. They were able to get back onto the vessel fairly quickly, sitting on its upended gunwale. Callicoatte took out his iPhone and wallet and secured them inside, then stood on the boat’s side and looked back toward the club. The Corinthian had a race that afternoon, and its chase boat—a little Boston Whaler speedboat—was still on the water, not too far away.

“That chase boat is going to come get us upright,” he told her. “You couldn’t have seen that gust coming. Don’t worry about it at all. No big deal.”

And then he got back in the water, making his way around the tipped-over boat to the hull. Both life jackets stayed behind.

The prospective club member heard Callicoatte talking to the two members of the Corinthian who were on the chase boat, but she couldn’t see him—the bottom of the boat separated them. She didn’t know until later that the old man righted the boat himself, standing on the centerboard to provide a counterweight. She thought the Corinthian boat had helped.

By then, the wind had picked up. The Flying Scot’s two sails were all over the place, and it was drifting away. The guys from the Corinthian told the prospective club member to manage her boat, that they would take care of him, so she pulled her sails in, got it steady, and circled back to where Callicoatte was treading water. About 50 yards away, they told her to put the boat into the wind, what sailors call “in irons.” She was stalled out, sails loose, waiting. Callicoatte was between the two boats, about 30 yards from the Boston Whaler. What happened next happened fast, less than two minutes.

“He wasn’t struggling or anything,” the prospective club member says. “And then he went under a little bit, almost like people do when you’re at a pool and you go under water just to rinse off or get refreshed. It wasn’t a good amount of water. You could see the top of his head. It was at the top of the water.”

She and the crew of the Corinthian’s chase boat realized at the same time that he wasn’t coming back up. One of the Corinthians ran off the boat and jumped into the water fully clothed. But as soon as he jumped in, Callicoatte began to sink, slowly, fading from view as he dropped to the lake’s murky bottom. He never fought it. By the time the member of the Corinthian swam to the spot where he’d gone under, he belonged to the water.

It would take members of the Dallas Police Department’s dive team almost a full day to find Callicoatte’s body, using side-scan sonar and crawling along a line through pitch-black water. Members of the club kept watch on the shore.

Waiting for the dive team to recover her boyfriend’s body, Jo Lynne Merrill lamented, “I could never get him to wear a life jacket.” She said that Conrad Callicoatte—on and around the water for most of his life—could barely swim.

Comments