Nourdine Jensen dies; graveside and memorial services Thursday

Nourdine Jensen, longtime boatbuilder and former town councilman, school board member, port commissioner and OPALCO board member, died Sunday at Island Hospital. He was 95. Bottom photo, a portrait of the boatwright as a young man. - Top photo: Richard Walker. Bottom photo: Jensen family collection
Nourdine Jensen, longtime boatbuilder and former town councilman, school board member, port commissioner and OPALCO board member, died Sunday at Island Hospital. He was 95. Bottom photo, a portrait of the boatwright as a young man.
— image credit: Top photo: Richard Walker. Bottom photo: Jensen family collection

If Nourdine Jensen had returned home from the hospital, there would have been a unique yet fitting tribute to him on Spring Street as his car got off the ferry: A stop light, albeit a temporary rented one.

Mr. Jensen had long advocated having a stop light on Spring Street that could be controlled by the ferry landing, to keep the street clear of traffic as the ferry unloaded. He frequently spoke to Town Administrator King Fitch about it.

"I think he would have gotten a kick out of that," Fitch said of his tribute.

Unfortunately, Mr. Jensen didn't get to enjoy that bit of humor. The boatbuilder and former town councilman, school board member, port commissioner and OPALCO board member died Sunday in Island Hospital after cancer surgery. He was 95.

He died peacefully with his family at his side, granddaughter Alisa Schoultz said.

He was hospitalized shortly after a birthday celebration at the Grange in September. Doctors discovered cancer during a CT scan. Up to the time of his hospitalization, he was dutifully at work in his office overlooking Albert Jensen & Sons Shipyard, the oldest family owned business in San Juan County.

Graveside service is Thursday, 11:30 a.m., at Valley Cemetery. Memorial service follows at 1 p.m. at Friday Harbor Presbyterian Church. The graveside service will be conducted by the Masonic Lodge, of which Mr. Jensen was a past master.

Tributes rolled in as news of his passing spread.

Friday Harbor Port Director Marilyn O'Connor said port officials and employees will attend the service. The port district plans to issue a statement of condolence.

"I always thought he was one of the last great characters," former Friday Harbor mayor Gary Boothman said. "He was a wonderful guy — crusty on the outside, soft on the inside. I always liked him."

Boothman, an avid boater, said Jensen's Shipyard is "one of the last great boatyards in the Northwest," where boat owners can haul out their boats and work on them. He admired Mr. Jensen for his career-long devotion to boating and for keeping that service alive.

Town Permit Coordinator Warren F. Jones knew Mr. Jensen since 1946, when the latter returned home from the service, and they served together in the local Masonic Lodge. He said Mr. Jensen was a 60-year, and possibly 65-year, member of the lodge.

"He was just a great guy, a wonderful gentleman," Jones said. "I traveled with him with the lodge over the years. He was extremely active in the Masons all his adult life."

Mr. Jensen was born on Sept. 17, 1914, the son of boatbuilder Albert Jensen and the former Julia Frits, a school teacher who later became superintendent of schools. His maternal grandfather was John W. Frits, county auditor; his uncle, Virgil Frits, was town clerk and editor of the Friday Harbor Journal.

Nourdine Jensen attended local schools and lived an island life, swimming in a now-gone lagoon near the shipyard, baling hay and oats at his uncle Frank Jensen’s farm, and meeting his future wife, Vera Smethurst of Seattle, while she vacationed with her sister and friends at Kwan Lama. When he returned to the University of Washington, he looked her up. They were married in 1938 in Seattle.

Mr. Jensen was no stranger to his uncle Virgil’s newspaper office. After he learned the machinist’s trade, he converted the Journal’s press from gas to electric.

By 1940, Albert Jensen had built more than 100 boats. Then, upon the start of World War II, he leased the shipyard to a consortium that had a contract to build three tugs and four barges for the Army. Nourdine, who was working in a machine shop in Seattle, came back to manage the construction.

After the contract was fulfilled, in 1942, the younger Jensen joined the Navy and worked as a machinist for a ship repair unit in the Admiralty Islands, in the South Pacific off New Guinea. After his discharge in 1946, he returned to Friday Harbor and joined his father at the shipyard. In 1958, he assumed leadership of the shipyard upon his father’s death.

The Jensens built boats of their own design, but they also built boats designed by famed marine architects Bill Garden and Ed Monk. Author Ernie Gann’s boat was built at Jensen’s. During Nourdine Jensen's tenure, the shipyard built at least 150 boats, many of which are still cruising Puget Sound. In the 1960s, fiberglass boats became more prominent and Albert Jensen & Sons, Inc. shifted from boat building to maintenance, repair, storage and moorage.

Over the years, Mr. Jensen left his imprint in the maritime industry and in community affairs. And, by virtue of his longevity, he was a living encyclopedia of island history who brought an educated perspective to discussion of local issues.

He served on the first Friday Harbor Port Commission from 1950-1973, on the Friday Harbor Town Council from 1953-59, on the OPALCO board from 1965-69 and 1975-2008, and as a school board member and a volunteer firefighter.

In an interview shortly before his 95th birthday, he was still concerned about local issues. He said Warbass Way was a “sore subject” for him; he said it’s been turned into a “parking lot” that has added to congestion on the narrow road. He advocated putting traffic signals on Spring Street at First and Second streets; the lights would be controlled by the ferry landing to allow offloaded traffic to travel unimpeded up Spring Street.

The latter idea is not without precedence. There once was a traffic light on Spring Street. Mr. Jensen said it was controlled by the fire department to keep the street free of traffic in the event of an emergency.

Today, Mr. Jensen’s daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter continue the family’s legacy of service to the shipyard and to the community.

Daughter Jeri Ahrenius served on the Board of Freeholders and is a cemetery district commissioner. Son-in-law Mike Ahrenius is a Friday Harbor port commissioner. Granddaughter Alisa Schoultz is a San Juan Island Park and Recreation District commissioner.

“He inspired by example,” Mrs. Ahrenius said in an earlier interview. “He and my mother always made things available — they supplied piano lessons and tennis lessons. But they never pushed in any way.”

In that September interview, Mr. Jensen said he had no plans to retire. “When they carry me out of here” was his response to the question.

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