PALM HARBOR — The Gulf of Mexico is as much a part of Wally Ericson as his husky voice and bushy white eyebrows.
"It's his natural habitat,'' said his wife, Nancy Ericson, whose first date with Ericson ended in a thunderstorm, albeit a romantic one, off Honeymoon Island in 1954.
Before Wally Ericson made a career from boatbuilding and fishing, which took him as far north as Canada and as far south as Nicaragua, and before he and Nancy raised their three children while operating Ericson Marine in Tarpon Springs, he worked as a dredger. He and his dredge created the foundation for many of the waterfront communities in Pinellas County.
In the 1950s, Ericson worked from dredges he built himself. He dredged and filled Indian Bluff Island, Ozona Shores and Home Port Marina in Palm Harbor, as well as Harbor View Villas and the area near Bon Appetit restaurant in Dunedin.
He also worked in Pasco County, dredging for the Gulf Harbors development, among others.
When his daughter Susan was born in 1958, he was dredging near the Clearwater Memorial Causeway bridge. "I remember a secretary came out near the dredge, in her high heels, and said, 'You have a baby daughter,' '' Ericson said, recalling that day.
Dredging and filling get a thumbs-down from many environmentalists these days. Ericson, 81, acknowledges that there were a few developers ". . . who wanted to overdo it, back then.''
"But we need dredging if you're going to have boats and channels," he said. "The west coast of Florida is so shallow, and if you don't dredge, you don't have channels for boats."
In 1960, when the government made it clear that dredging, if done at all, would be highly regulated, Ericson decided he'd become a fisherman. But he was hired for several large-scale dredging projects first.
In 1961, he helped Gahagan Dredging Corp. and the Army Corps of Engineers create the Pinellas portion of the Intracoastal Waterway from Tarpon Springs south to Boca Ciega Bay. "I was in charge of crew transport,'' he said.
He also teamed up with Gahagan at Cape Canaveral for construction of NASA's famed launch pad 39A, which would eventually send Neil Armstrong and his Apollo 11 team to the moon.
"We used 26 million cubic yards of fill from the Banana River" to create the base for the concrete launch pad, he recalled.
By the time Apollo 11 launched, Ericson was fishing off the Dry Tortugas. "I remember watching the sky for the rocket,'' he said.
As a commercial fisherman, Ericson pulled in millions of pounds of mackerel, grouper, shrimp, lobster and scallops. He built boats, some from wood, some with steel hulls, for his work.
He also equipped several boats with gadgets he invented to make his work easier: a shucking machine for scalloping, and the Ericson Safety Pump, an emergency device used when a vessel is swamped or sinking.
"At one time, that pump had a patent in 22 different countries,'' Ericson said.
The Clearwater High graduate credits his father, Fred Ericson, for giving him his nautical know-how. Born in Sweden, Fred Ericson and his wife, Ada, had two boys, Wally and Edward, whom he introduced to sponging and fishing early in their childhood.
Fred was also with Wally, then about 3 or 4 years old, the first time he stepped on a dredge.
"My father was a foreman for Gulf Oil out of Tampa," Ericson said. "He'd deliver fuel to the dredges while they dredged the Courtney Campbell Causeway. Back then it was known as the Davis Causeway.''
It was also Fred who taught his son how to earn money through bird racking.
"If you don't know what bird racking is, it's when wooden racks were set up off the coast. Birds would come sit on them. We'd scrape the bird droppings, selling it for fertilizer,'' he explained.
From 1969 to 2004, while Ericson fished for a living, Nancy ran the front office of Ericson Marine and parented their children, Steve, Tom and Susan.
"It wasn't easy for Nancy," Ericson said. "She's put up with me for 57 years, and I was gone a lot of that time, so I'm most proud of that, my marriage and our children.''
Ericson's daughter, Susan Wissler, describes her childhood at the marina as "a wonderful way to grow up.'' In 2004, she and her husband, Tom Wissler, took over the marina business until the family sold it to Turtle Cove Marina in 2007. "We got a deal we couldn't refuse, but I miss it terribly,'' Susan said.
She also recalls many evenings watching her dad sketch boat designs at the dinner table.
"He had a favorite dinner plate that he'd lay paper on and he'd get to work drawing out the boat he wanted to build. My dad is a physics genius. He just gets it. He naturally gets it,'' she said.
Lawyer Cimos Angelis agrees. Angelis' family operates Gulf Marine Ways in Tarpon Springs. When he needed a maritime expert to help in a criminal case last year, he called up Ericson.
Angelis was one of more than a dozen lawyers defending 13 members of a Honduran lobster boat who were accused of drug smuggling. The Coast Guard had brought the ship and the crew to Tampa for the trial.
"Wally was one of my father's (Angelo Angelis) oldest friends, and I knew his vast experience, and that included lobstering, putting traps down himself from the gulf to the tip of Cuba. That's what made his opinion so poignant for the jury,'' Angelis said.
"Wally and I went down to the vessel," he said. "He looked over every inch of the boat and was able to make it clear to the jury that the crew had gone out on a legitimate fishing operation and was overtaken by drug smugglers.
"There are 13 sailors who owe their freedom right now to Wally Ericson,'' Angelis said.
Piper Castillo can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4163.