Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#642: In Memoriam: Packy Offield

Rather than write about another critter from the briny deep this week, I want to dedicate my column to someone who shared my love for the ocean and for the island. We have lost a wonderful champion for Avalon, Catalina and global conservation with the death of Paxson Headley "Packy" Offield last Sunday. That loss is deeply felt by the many friends he made during his all-too-short life but especially by his family. My heart goes out to them especially as we all share in grieving for this kind, generous and gentle human being.

When I first arrived at Toyon Bay in August of 1969 to teach at the Catalina Island School for Boys, I heard we would have a Wrigley heir among the students. As a left-wing 60s radical, I wondered if he and I would get along. Packy was the first student I met. He arrived well before the school year began, and set about getting the sailing program and photographic darkroom ready. He worked for about two weeks without any compensation and soon earned my full respect.

Packy was my student in the academic year 1969-70 taking advanced marine biology and advanced math. He did well in biology but I could never get him or his classmates to understand the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus! Since smoking after the last bell wasn't permitted except in faculty apartments, he would come up to mine almost nightly; often with Tad Lacey, Grant Baldwin, Michael Taylor and occasionally others; to smoke cigarettes and talk until the wee hours. Fortunately we all kicked that habit a bit later in life, especially after watching our surrogate father, the school's business manager Jim Adamson, die of lung cancer.

Some of the tales he shared were about the "spirits" that haunted Toyon. One night early that year he and a friend came up to my house after raising the float on the school pier. He told me they had seen two bright white human-like figures walking side-by-side up the hill. That led to more stories about other sightings including the seance he had attended the year before. Word spread through campus and the majority of the boys decided to crash on the floor of the school dining room. As a faculty member, I felt they needed supervision so I grabbed my sleeping bag and joined them! You can read many of our "ghost stories" in Rob Wlodarski's Haunted Catalina.

I knew Packy liked Scotch but I could never figure out where he hid his bottle even after many inspections of his dorm room. The night before graduation, he and his buddies came up to my apartment with a bottle of Scotch so we could all celebrate. He finally told me that he hid his bottle in the toilet tank in his room! However, I don't remember "cocktail hour" ever affecting his academic conduct or duties as a student leader.

Packy loved to be out on the ocean and was a key figure in the school's sailing program. The team would occasionally go to the mainland for races. I remember one weekend we got a call saying that they had missed the last boat and wouldn't be back at school until late Monday. I went into the darkroom one night to develop some pictures for the school yearbook and found a set of prints Packy had hung up to dry. It showed the sailing team on the mainland with their girlfriends taken that Sunday afternoon! I took one of the pictures and pinned it on the school bulletin board including a comment something to the effect of "Missed the last boat, eh?"

One day following a vacation Packy brought a strange handheld electronic device into math class with him. I asked him what it was and he replied "a calculator." Since it was the first one I'd ever seen, I wanted to know what it could do. "Add, subtract, multiply and divide." When he told me it cost $400, I nearly fell out of my chair. I said I can do all that in my head, and that's more than a month's take home pay!

Given his position in life, Packy was an extremely humble person and few would have guessed his family came from old money. As a student he wore the same tattered jeans and Topsiders that others did... and I followed suit by buying my first pair from Buoys and Gulls and also using a brass Pelican hook like he did for my growing bundle of school and jeep keys. Pendleton or flannel shirts were also de rigueur back then.

Following graduation in 1970 Packy went to Denver University. We kept in touch via the ancient technology of letters. I ended up staying at his home in Denver for about a month in the summer of 1972 when I went to visit him and my students from the Kent School in Denver. He never lost his love for the island, and later that year he returned to the Catalina Island School as my teaching assistant, along with Barry "Bam Bam" Aires. We did a lot of "biologisizing" (as well as a bit of Scotch) that year.

One day he asked to borrow my 300mm Nikkor telephoto lens since we both shot with Nikon F2s. Then he asked if he could borrow my ancient M38A1 military jeep. I asked him why and he said he wanted to film bison mating. I laughed and said okay. A few hours later, he came roaring back down the Toyon road and said he had succeeded. Indeed, several of the still images he took were outstanding and one even used to grace the wall of original Antonio's back in the 1980s. He preferred not to take credit for it back then!

Upon college graduation, Packy joined the faculty at the school teaching economics and history. At that time he brought "the Heep" to the island, trading in his Denver BMW for the winch for the jeep, if I remember correctly. He, Cathy, Carol and I would "double date" when our duties at the school allowed a little free time (a rarity). Frequently we'd do jeep caravans into the interior with students to photograph plants and critters. On one trip along the road above Silver Canyon, Packy couldn't get The Heep out of a saddle due to the loose pebbles on the road. We thought we'd all be stuck and have to walk back since we couldn't fit everyone in my vehicle. I jumped out of my jeep, put his in low range reverse and backed it right out... to the shock of Packy (and myself).

Packy left the school to begin working for the Santa Catalina Island Company (SCICo) in the summer or fall of 1976, if memory serves me correctly. He also became a member of the board at the school. His leadership at the SCICo earned him the respect of company employees and the majority of our small community. I began consulting for the SCICo around 1983, researching and writing tour manuals on the first laptop seen on the island (an old CP/M-based system). One day Ron Doutt asked Packy if I would get much work done sitting out at Descanso Beach with the computer. Packy told me he replied that I'd get more work done out there than I would stuck in an office! I think he wished he could do the same, although he long eschewed computers and wrote everything out longhand in pencil or pen on a yellow legal pad.

During those early years, Packy continued his love affair with the ocean by becoming a part-time commercial swordfisherman, partnering with former Toyoner and Avalon resident Allen Hubble. Although he didn't get many broadbill, I know he thoroughly enjoyed being out at sea and observing everything he could. When he and Allen did make a catch, I'd be ready at the pier to buy a 20 pound chunk of broadbill for $1.25 a pound!

We didn't always agree. By the mid '70s I had stopped hunting and fishing while the latter was one of Packy's passions. In his early days of catch and release marlin fishing, I voiced my opinion that marlin so caught were often exhausted and their muscle tissues filled with lactic acid, so many died. Packy didn't believe that and funded his own study of marlin mortality using catch and release. His findings revealed a mortality rate higher than he expected and he quickly began championing circle hooks which reduced billfish mortality compared to the older J-hooks. As a member of Avalon's Tuna Club, Packy always believed in more sporting approaches to fishing.

In 1995 while he was still with the SCICo and Chairman of the Board for the Catalina Conservancy, I joined the Conservancy as Vice President for Science, Education and Ecological Restoration. Together we were able to bring about a significant advance in conservation, education and science in that organization aided by the merger of the Conservancy and Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden. Through the Offield Family Foundation, Packy funded our effort to remove feral goats and pigs from the island and helped return Catalina to a more natural state. It was something we first talked about back when he was a student.

In 2004 he invited me to join him on board his boat on a scientific expedition to Guadalupe Island to tag and film great white sharks. I filmed in one cage and Dr. Guy Harvey in the other, and our footage was used in one of Guy's television episodes. Later I was invited by Packy to go to Cocos Island and the Galapagos to tag marlin, dive and film. My son Kevin called to tell me he was getting married the day we were to arrive in the Galapagos, and of course he came first, so I had to cancel on that trip. Packy's efforts at marine conservation earned him recognition in the International Game Fishing Association's Hall of Fame and he received many accolades for his conservation work both at sea and on land.

With his globe trotting adventures under the aegis of the Offield Billfish Foundation, and his primary residences on the mainland and in Michigan, we didn't see as much of each other as we used to. Our last time together was in April when he was on the island for the Conservancy Ball. He invited me up to the house for a few beers with him and the "kids" (Chase, Kelsey, Calen and Rex). It was then he told me he was going back for treatment as the leukemia had resurfaced. They were going to try an experimental treatment on an outpatient basis that would allow him to stay in his home with Sue rather than a hospital bed. He was optimistic and we were all very hopeful he would pull through this setback. Unfortunately he didn't.

The Catalina Island School, Avalon, the island and many others throughout the world lost a very highly valued member of our communities on Sunday. My condolences to all who knew him and especially to Sue, Wendy, Chase, Kelsey, Calen, Rex and Packy's brother Jim. We have all lost an incredible human being. Rest in peace, my friend. You are sorely missed by so many.

© 2015 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. You can also watch these episodes in iPod format on YouTube through my channel there (drbillbushing). Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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My favorite picture of Packy from about 1975 before we headed out to explore and photograph the island,
and Packy giving Norwegian foreign exchange student Charlotte Alsing an award at Toyon's 1976
graduation; "Executive Offield" in front of the SCICo office in 1977 and Packy and I with Dick Wheeler,
our headmaster at the Toyon school, having dinner at the Bluewater Grille in 2013.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2014 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia