Shell retiree John Tursi’s legacy and legend will live on in the Tursi Trail
Jul 28, 2016
Few men leave behind a bigger legacy or a better life story than Anacortes icon and 23-year Shell employee John Tursi, who passed away earlier this year at 98.
Tursi’s legacy includes donating a critical conservation easement on Fidalgo Bay to Skagit Land Trust, being the largest donor in the campaign to forever protect the Anacortes Community Forest Lands, and the newly completed Tursi Trail which connects Deception Pass State Park and the Anacortes Community Forest Lands, all of which will be enjoyed by generations.
Later this year, signs honoring Tursi and directing trail users will be installed on the Tursi Trail thanks to a $10,000 gift from the Shell Puget Sound Refinery that honors Tursi’s many contributions to the company and to the Anacortes community.
Tursi’s story is as big as his generosity.
He came to the area from Brooklyn, NY, at 16 to work for the Civilian Conservation Corps, which built the infrastructure for Deception Pass State Park. We didn’t know where we were going or what we were going to be doing,” John recalled in an interview a few weeks before his passing this spring. The young men of the CCC weren’t expecting such a long train ride. “Somebody had written with chalk on the side of the train,” he recalled. “I thought it was Anaconda, near DC. It wasn’t until we were in North Dakota that a guy in a suit got on and told us where we were going. He said: ‘Got a map? Look at the upper left corner of the country.’”
John wasn’t immediately wowed by the place. “It was a dreary, overcast day, it didn’t look too great,” he recalled. But then he took a ferry ride and saw the spectacular landscape of the area.
“I thought right then: I’m not going back to New York.”
Although the work was hard and often took place in wet, cold conditions, Tursi looked back on it fondly, especially the plentiful food, which was a rarity in the Great Depression. “No matter how many hotcakes you wanted, you got ‘em,” he recalled. “Everything was so good.”
Workers made $5 a month, which he remembers as “sufficient.” He bought used clothing from men who had lost their money gambling and put away $2-$3 per month, a habit of thrift that helped him amass the money that he would later use to preserve the lands he was falling in love with.
He worked as a “powder monkey” for a 75-year-old blasting expert and learned that skill as the CCC carved out the park and other projects.
“That parking lot at Deception Pass? That was 14 feet of rock,” he recalls. The blasting didn’t always go smoothly. “I cut the power off on all of Whidbey Island with a piece of rock the size of your head,” he chuckled.
After the work for the CCC ended, he did odd jobs, sometimes struggling to make enough to eat. “I got so I was eating shrimp, tail and all,” he recalled. “I was living off the beach.”
He worked in the local sawmill and elsewhere. “I took anything that I could get; I wasn’t particular. You didn’t ask what the job was, you just took the job and did it.”
In the 1950s, oil companies began building refineries in the area, drawn by the promise of abundant crude oil in Alaska and Canada and a favorable tax structure. Tursi was in at the start. By then he was a self-trained engineer with a knack for mechanical systems. His first job was working with the contractors to align the pumps and turbines at the refinery. “I built up a reputation for repairing turbines and turbine-driven stuff. I never saw anything that I couldn’t repair” he recalled. “I was the lowest man in the meeting and they most always turned to me.”
Later in his career, he became a traveling problem-solver for Shell. Sometimes he would come home on the weekends and find a note pinned to the door with the number of the flight to his next project, which often kept him away from home months at a time. Eventually he retired, turning down a rich contract to keep solving problems for the company. He became a philanthropic giant in the community, helping many charities over the years. But the trail will be one of his lasting legacies. It extends Pass Lake Trail in the Deception Pass State Park to Campbell Lake Road at the southern reach of the Forest Lands. This project has been in the park’s long-term plan for 50 years, and the corridor passes through one of the most beautiful parts of Fidalgo Island, traversing near the “cathedral tree,” the “rock” of Morris Graves lore and the Ginnett Homestead. Skagit Land Trust, Deception Pass State Park and Skagit County worked with generous local landowners for almost five years to acquire voluntary trail easements and key land connections for this trail, and then with the Washington Trails Association to help build it.
But it was Tursi himself who provided the financial muscle to get the job done.
“They were looking for money to help with the Forest Lands, and I just decided to help them out,” he recalled matter-of-factly.