As he stared down his inevitable demise, Joseph Townsend Jr. approached his fate with an unwavering fortitude. In the first few years after being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Mr. Townsend traveled as often as he could, relishing time on the water in his 24-foot Mako motorboat.
Even if he couldn’t pull an anchor anymore, he could still navigate his way around a boat.
As time passed and the disease slowly took its hold on the once world-class athlete, Mr. Townsend found the positives in each moment. His friends and family became more important than ever. Close friends Mary Foster and Tom Morgan would organize gourmet dinners on Friday nights at a local yacht club. And when Mr. Townsend’s diet was limited to liquids, they cooked a special lobster bisque just for him.
“That made Joe smile,” said his wife, Nancy Lee Baxter.
Mr. Townsend’s friend Joe Mitrani would take him golfing at Island’s End in Greenport. Mr. Mitrani would hit a ball for himself and then one for his friend, who watched from the golf cart, and eventually from his wheelchair. They joked that the better shots always seemed to be during Mr. Mitrani’s turn.
Mr. Townsend reflected on his fate in a 2018 interview with The Suffolk Times, saying: “In a sense, I’m just aging quite fast.”
Mr. Townsend died early last Thursday morning at his home, nearly four and a half years after his diagnosis with ALS. He was 74. He had recently suffered pneumonia, a common complication of ALS, his family said.
To this day, Mr. Townsend remains the youngest mayor in the history of Greenport Village, having assumed its leadership at age 28. His role in local politics spanned numerous positions as he helped transform the village from a run-down area in the early 1970s into a vibrant community that would become the popular tourist destination it is today.
“It’s no exaggeration to say everything you see in Greenport today wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Joe,” said longtime friend David Kapell, who also served as mayor for 13 years. “He was a dreamer at a time when Greenport needed a dream.”
Mr. Townsend would later serve Southold Town as a councilman and longtime member of the Planning Board. He was a staunch promoter of preservation, and his work as a board member of Peconic Land Trust resulted in a number of notable accomplishments.
“Part of his mission was to not only have the town grow, but to protect the rural feeling, the beauty and history,” his wife said. “He worked very hard at that. It didn’t always make him electable, but it’s who you would want in politics because he always saw both sides.”
In December 2017, the Land Trust unveiled a plaque in his honor at Orient Point’s Edwards Farm, at the head of a trail that will lead to a nature observation platform overlooking Hallocks Bay, Orient Beach State Park and beyond.
He was an environmentalist, businessman, athlete, historian, traveler and family man.
“He had a deep affection for this community, this town and really appreciated its natural beauty and wanted to protect that,” said his daughter, Baxter Townsend.
Mr. Kapell said what made Mr. Townsend stand out was his ability to listen to any idea, no matter where it came from, that could improve the then-isolated village.
“Joe opened the door to the outside world,” he said.
Born July 1, 1945, in New York City to Joseph Townsend Sr. and Jane Dorman, Mr. Townsend was raised in Greenport. He lived his earliest years in a house on the property of Townsend Manor Inn, the hotel and restaurant his parents owned before they sold the business and moved into a house down the street. His father had graduated from Yale in 1930, but entered the workforce during the Depression and, finding limited opportunities in New York City, ventured east to Greenport. Mr. Townsend Sr.’s mother had bought and started the business and he helped her run the inn while beginning to raise a family.
Mr. Townsend started at Greenport schools before attending The Gunnery, a private boarding school in Connecticut. It was there he became more focused on athletics, competing in football, wrestling and rowing. He attended Boston University and, at a friend’s encouragement, decided to a try out for the school’s rowing team as a freshman. Boston University had a strong program, and still maintains men’s and women’s rowing to this day. In a 2018 interview, Mr. Townsend described how most of the students at the tryout had no rowing experience, but had the advantage of height. When the coach found out he had competed in high school, he got the chance right away to show what he could do. He stood about 6 feet tall, which was shorter than most of his competitors. But he still excelled, and his freshmen team went on to become one of the best in the country.
Mr. Townsend would wind up training with Dick Curtis, who also attended Boston University, and the two formed a duo that narrowly missed qualifying for the 1972 Olympics in Munich. They finished second in the fours event and third in pairs at the qualifier. They had a strong chance to qualify for the 1980 Moscow games, but President Jimmy Carter called for a U.S. boycott.
Mr. Curtis said they met in 1965 and began rowing together a year later, forming a lifelong friendship.
“It was an amazing relationship that probably wouldn’t have existed outside of rowing,” Mr. Curtis said. “He’s more like a brother than he is a friend.”
The podcast below with Mr. Townsend was published in 2018
He remembered Mr. Townsend for his toughness and competitiveness as an athlete and as someone who pushed him to achieve.
“Joe was able to push himself beyond what other people could,” he said. “You saw that in the last few months as well in a different way.”
It was Mr. Townsend who encouraged Mr. Curtis to train with him for the 1972 Olympics. Mr. Curtis said he thought it was crazy at first and assumed after a few weeks Mr. Townsend would move on to train with a more qualified partner.
A few weeks into training, the two began to click.
“I came to know that what you thought was impossible may not be,” Mr. Curtis said. “That’s a pretty big lesson in life.”
One of their top accomplishments was qualifying for the 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico. At the Pan-Am trials, they finished second in the pair-without-coxswain event and were named alternates to the U.S. team.
In 1977, the duo were profiled in The New York Times as they prepared to compete in the Henley Regatta outside London against some of the world’s best rowers. They were both 32, older than most rowers, but were still considered the best pair on the East Coast, the Times noted.
As they trained for the 1980 Olympics, only one U.S. team had beaten them in their pairs event, an unusual competition where each rower has one oar. But that duo opted not to compete in that event at the qualifiers, making Mr. Townsend and Mr. Curtis the favorites. Mr. Townsend remained active in rowing and tennis well into his 60s. He was also a fixture at the former annual Bob Wall Tennis Tournament.
One of his accomplishments as mayor was promoting music in the village by helping to organize music festivals. That wound up leading him to his wife.
Mr. Townsend was walking down Central Avenue with his bicycle and his dog, Fred, a black Lab, when he noticed his future bride sitting on a porch playing guitar. He asked if she wanted to see his guitar collection. He was blown away by the original music he heard her perform.
“I was very impressed with Joe, so we started dating,” she said, while admitting that the guitar collection was not all that impressive.
They attended one of the festivals in the village where they got to know each other more. He was 30 when they met, and they wouldn’t marry for another 15 years. They then had their daughter, who is now 29.
Baxter recalled how her father would take her clamming and boating and passed along his love for the outdoors. When she wanted to play football, he encouraged her to go for it.
“I also think he gave me a real sense of this place as a community and a town,” she said, noting that he would share stories of her grandfather’s and great-grandmother’s time.
“He just wanted to create a place for people to gather and he understood that when you have art in a community, it helps elevate everything,” his wife said.
On top of all his work in athletics and politics, Mr. Townsend also worked at the insurance company his father had started. He was 26 when he came back to Greenport and began working at Townsend Insurance, where he eventually became a partner and took over the business. He continued working up until a few years after he was diagnosed with ALS.
Mr. Townsend was predeceased by his parents and sister Jane and is survived by his sisters Phebe Banta and Susan Johnson. Funeral arrangements were handled by Horton-Mathie Funeral Home in Greenport, where a chapel service was held Wednesday morning, Sept. 4. Burial followed at Sterling Cemetery.
Among the frequent visitors in recent years, as Mr. Townsend’s health declined, was his rowing partner, Mr. Curtis, who now lives in Connecticut. During the years they trained together, Mr. Curtis kept detailed journals. He wrote about one hitch-hiking adventure he went on and the characters he met along the way. So when he visited Mr. Townsend in recent months, he would bring some of the journals and read aloud to him at his bedside.
At the end of the 2018 interview, Mr. Townsend was asked to reflect on the famous quote by Lou Gehrig, who said he considered himself the luckiest man in the world as he spoke in front of a packed Yankee Stadium.
Mr. Townsend laughed and said he wouldn’t go that far. But he had lived an amazing life, he said.
“To be able to live here, to be able to help preserve the environment and the culture of their community, to be able to compete in the highest levels on a sport, to be able to travel the world, to have a wonderful family, that’s pretty good.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect the print edition of the Sept. 5 paper.
Photo caption: Mr. Townsend pictured in December 2017 with Peconic Land Trust President John Halsey (right) and senior advisor Tim Caufield. (Courtesy photo)
REPORTING BY GRANT PARPAN AND TROY GUSTAVSON