The water still calls to him. Nearly 40 years living in Down East Maine hasn’t changed that for Jon Wilson. He’s not on the ocean as much as he’d like–his work keeps him more tethered to the land than it used to, he’ll say–but the longtime sailor still gets out there when he can. He’s navigated a good portion of the East Coast and drifted around the Caribbean, but Maine’s waters–“so raw in a way,” he says–still captivate him. Penobscot Bay and its scattered islands, the expansive, never-ending feel of the Atlantic off Naskeag Point, the winds that rush along Eggemoggin Reach … these are the places he returns to again and again.
On those clear, sun-drenched summer days, when blue sky and warm winds make it seem as though winter will never return, Wilson and his wife, Sherry Streeter, board their sailboat–a 34-foot cruiser that’s nearly as old as its 65-year-old owner–and let it lumber along at a steady five or six knots. Sometimes they steer to a favorite island; other times, Wilson’s looking for something else. “It’s a visceral feeling,” he says. “That sense of oneness with the boat, the water, and the wind.”
It seems so idyllic. And yet, he doesn’t let himself remain here too long. “There’s a part of me that could just stay out there,” he says. “I have to fight it. For me it feels a little self-indulgent. I just feel as though I can do so much more ashore.”
You see, amid all that quiet, all that lovely isolation, Wilson’s mind often drifts back to land, back to work, back to the lives he’s gotten to know almost as well as these Maine waters. Wilson’s legacy and fortunes, of course, are secure. He’s grown WoodenBoat Publications and its namesake magazine, which he started in 1974 out of a tiny cabin in North Brooksville, Maine, into an $8-million-a-year brand. There’s a gorgeous house on the shores of the Reach in Brooklin and that boat he adores, and yet, increasingly, all of it has migrated to the background of his life. Instead, Wilson has placed himself on the front lines of the restorative-justice movement. Through a small nonprofit called JUST Alternatives, which he founded in 2003, Wilson has poured himself into an intensive process of preparing and facilitating meetings between survivors of violent crimes and their offenders.
Known as victim-offender dialogue (VOD), this is a world of mothers devastated by the loss of murdered children; wives trying to move past years of domestic abuse; rage and anger, recovery and forgiveness. Wilson is part counselor, part friend, part advocate. And, in a way, it’s not as much of a break from his publishing past as it might first appear.
“I think in terms of possibilities,” he says. “That’s what WoodenBoat was: the possibility of durability, the possibility of the value of wooden boats and culture. That’s all anything I do is.”
He is, in other words, still restoring–still a believer that something that’s been broken, that’s been abandoned, can be put back together. It’s different work–deeper work, he says–but it’s similar work. Which is why, even when he’s out on his boat, the people Wilson deals with are never far from him. “It’s unavoidable,” he says. “You carry their stories and their pain. I don’t find it easy to let go of. I love making a difference. I love being of consequence. I love being responsible for making sure something is happening.”
Jon Wilson’s home and work settings are defined by the water. WoodenBoat Publications, just a few hundred yards from his house, is located in Brooklin, a small coastal town that’s home to boatbuilders and summer folk who want a rural slice of oceanfront property without Massachusetts prices. Here, in this no-stop-light town, Wilson’s company isn’t just the biggest employer–there are 40 people on staff–it occupies the biggest house, too. Set on 65 acres of rolling, waterfront land dotted with apple trees and pines, the magazine’s main building is a former summer mansion, built for a Boston family in 1916. In its heyday, the property hadn’t been cheated of any amenities–the nearby barn included a full apartment for the chauffeur–but at the time Wilson scooped it up in 1980, the home had sat abandoned for several years.
Wilson renovated the place, and the big building still retains the feel of a rambling yet homey summer place. Offices are converted bedrooms; Wilson’s workspace occupies the master bedroom. Wilson–who has a full head of salt-and-pepper hair, soft green eyes framed by round, rimless glasses, and a fashion preference that favors Levis–moves with purpose when he walks, but there’s a carefree air about him, too; he’s the kind of guy who has a penchant for sliding down the banister of the building’s main staircase. (A few years ago, the front-office secretary ordered the removal of a glass-door cabinet at the base of the stairs, out of fear that her boss would slide right into it.)
In Wilson’s office at WoodenBoat Publications, items like a marine radio, telescope, and boat prints share space with black filing cabinets stuffed with case material, a desk stacked with piles of notes on offenders and victims, and bookshelves with titles such as Alabama Department of Corrections and Violent Crime Behavior. This amalgamation of the different pieces of his life has created a space that few understand. His presence at WoodenBoat, in fact, is a curious one. When he’s home in Maine, he’s at his office nearly every day. But he’s largely removed from the running of the company, and as one employee put it, “I’m not sure a lot of people really understand what it is Jon does.”
It can be tough to explain. The context for it, though, goes like this. In 1996, two years after Wilson stepped away from the company’s day-to-day operations, he launched a magazine called Hope, which profiled people and movements making a positive difference in communities across the country. Wilson had been researching an article on restorative justice when he stumbled across the story of a Minnesota couple, Don and Mary Streufert, who had met with the two men who had raped and killed their 18-year-old daughter. He was flabbergasted by the decision, and a phone call to the parents soon led him to a Texas minister, David Doerfler, who’d launched victim-offender dialogues in his home state, as well as training sessions so that others like him could lead those dialogues.
Wilson wrote about Doerfler, and then did a second piece about his facilitator training. To report on the story, Wilson agreed to take part in the training and to then lead and prepare one of the hundreds of Texas cases that were awaiting facilitators. “Sherry and others who knew me said, ‘Whoo boy, your life is about to change,'” he says. “I thought, Yeah, my life is going to change. I’m going to learn some things I’ve never known. But I didn’t see it changing the way they did.”
“He definitely gets immersed in whatever he’s doing, but it’s different with the dialogues,” says Streeter, his wife of 23 years. “It’s more whole. It’s more him. He doesn’t stress. With WoodenBoat he’d stress about advertising, about employees, about other things. He’s calmer now, more even.”
Wilson doesn’t recruit the VOD work; it’s strictly a victim-led initiation process that comes through a state’s victim-services agency. He’s made a name for himself in states such as Louisiana, Texas, and Kentucky, as well as around New England, through both his work and his availability. And because of WoodenBoat‘s continued success, Wilson doesn’t charge for his expenses or his time, which can be considerable. Cases may take up to a year to complete, requiring multiple one-on-one sessions between Wilson and the survivor, and Wilson and the offender, before survivor and offender are ready to meet each other in person.
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