Captain Bill Lafo


[from New Haven Register, Sunday, September 16, 1951:]


William Lafo of City Point Never Deterred by Many Handicaps

   William N. Lafo, 62, veteran New Haven ship captain, figured that if he could sail a ship and fly a plane, he could build a home.

   The fact that he had no previous experience in house construction and had only two days a week of free time did not deter him. A seafaring man who is accustomed to getting things done, he chucked the odds and went ahead, never even considering the possibility of failure.

   That was four years ago when he and Mrs. Lafo received notice to vacate the apartment they had occupied in 49 South Water Street for 31 years. They hunted unsuccessfully for a desirable rent in their favorite location--City Point.

Decide to Build

   So they decided to build.

   Today, four years and many callouses later, they have a four-room, one and a half story, cinder block and stucco house in 105 Greenwich Avenue--built mostly by Mr. Lafo in his spare time with some assistance from his son-in-law, Carl Johannesen of 7 Osgood Avenue, West Haven.

   Building a house through summer heat and winter storms was no cinch but blue-eyed "Captain Bill" enjoyed his venture into the construction field. He sandwiched the time for building in between his five-day week as captain of the steamtug "TS-11" which berths ships in the Navy's mothbal fleet in the Hudson River.

   And he still found time to pursue his hobbies--training Civil Air Patrol cadets in Peekskill, N.Y., (he holds a commercial pilot's license for single-engine aircraft espite his wife's objections), ice skating with his daughter, Mrs. Doris Johannesen, and rebuilding a fdragger he owns in the West Haven Shipyard. It was damaged in the 1943 hurricane.

Doesn't Fly for Profit

   Asked about his flying, Mr. Lafo says he has never piloted a commercial plane for profit, although his license permits it. He "flies for fun" because he likes it. In years past, he has painted with oils and sketched with pen and ink. There's no time for that now.

   Mr. Lafo's dream of a home started with drawing of the plans by himself to conform to a 30 by 150-foot lot. The house was to be 20 by 45 feet and set off at one side of the lot to allow driveway space at one side and possibly a garage later on.

   The project was started September 20, 1947, with the digging of the cellar. Its progress from then is recorded in a log book relating what happened every Saturday afternoon (he spent most Saturday mornings ordering supplies), Sundays and holidays for the next four years.

   As the work progressed, Mr. Johannesen kept Mr. Lafo informed of building code regulations and assisted in erecting the cinder block sidewalls, which extend to the eaves, and building the roof.

   To enable him and his wife to live in the house as soon as possible, Mr. Lafo put in the sidewalls and roof first, working from outside staging. He left laying of the floors until later.

Move In

   Just one year to the day from the time the cellar was started, the Lafos moved in. There was a roof overhead and a cellar with a furnace below them. Three rooms were finished and enclosed. The tight cinder-block construction, plus a drape over dthe doorway leading to the unfinished living room kept out the winter air.

   While the winds howled outside that first Winter, he worked outside the three snug rooms, sometimes in bitter cold. "The neighbors thought I would freeze to death," he grinned. One offered hot coffee on a particularly cold day. Many marveled at a man of his years swinging a hammer in dead Winter.

   Muscular, and trim as a racing sailboat, latern-jawed "Bill" Lafo has the physique for rugged outdoor work. Years at sea in fair and foul weather and ice skating have kept him in top shape.

   A diary entry of December 26, 1947, comments: "Brrrr--howling northeast snowstorm. Cut 30 rafters. Shoveled snow about a foot deep. Only worked five hours."

   An entry for the following day says there was 20 inches of snow, which Mr. Lafo shoveled for three and a half hours. It adds: "Put plates on to mount rafters."

Sea Experience Helps

   Asked how he got his walls plumb, Mr. Lafo said that during his 50 years at sea he had been a ship's carpenter and had used his knowledge of lining up masts and other rigging on boats with the waterline.

   A city official told him, he says, that the plumb on his home, which is about 80 percent cinder block construction, is as good if not better than that of many homes being build by commercial contractors.

   "Captain Bill" Lafo went to sea during the Summer vacation from school in 1901 on cross-harbor ferry boats operated by Albert W. Widmann between Savin Rock and Lighthouse. Later, he was master of many ferry and excursion boats of that day, including the "Isabelle," "Cynthia," "Zephyr," "Alice" and "Griswold".

Led Swimmers

   One of his duties was the leading of cross-harbor swimmers from Savin Rock Pier to the beach at Lighthouse Point.

   Before joining the Federal Maritime Commission, he was a marine inspector for the Coast Guard during World War II.

   The house on Greenwich Avenue--built at a total cost of about $4,000, including the lot, materials and fees--is now complete except for the laying of hardwood floors, some inside work in the den off the living room, and the finish work in the front and rear porches.

   Mr. Lafo said his recent suggestion to move to New York so he could be closer to his work was immediately vetoed by his wife, who remarked, "Nothing doing, I'm not leaving this house." He thinks she is right.



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