Model Ship Honors Father's LegacyJanuary 3, 2014

The Rev. William Oulvey, S.J., of the Mission and Ministry office at Rockhurst University said he still recalls the stories his father, William Oulvey Sr., told of serving during World War II.

As part of the Merchant Marines, Oulvey Sr. spent the time between 1943 and 1946 on a vessel known as a “liberty ship,” delivering supplies as needed to the European theater of World War II. It was a part of history that Father Oulvey said he and his five siblings were introduced to through their father.

“He was very proud of his time in the service,” Father Oulvey said. “He sailed for three years, in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. On D-Day, he was aboard a liberty ship off of Belfast with the second wave of supplies for the invading forces.  So two weeks after D-Day, he was offloading supplies onto Omaha Beach.”

So when William T. Oulvey Sr. passed away in 2006, Father Oulvey decided to pay tribute to that service by building a detailed 1/16”-to-1’-scale bass wood replica of one of the liberty ships his father would have served on, the SS Mark Twain.

The three-year process to build the model was a labor of love, as Oulvey said he sought to create the delicate details of the ship, bow to stern, from the lifeboats hitched to either side of the ship to the multi-ton cranes that line its decks.

Model-building has long been a hobby for the Jesuit priest, one that in the past had him building small, delicate airplanes out of super-light balsa wood and tissue paper. His interest in working with his hands, however, goes back much further.

“I like the puzzle aspect of it,” he said. “If something is not working, I’m the kind of person that likes to take it apart and figure out how it works. Dad was the same way.”

This particular hands-on project, however, would be a significant one —Father Oulvey said though the ship was built from a kit, the hull itself had to be further carved by hand to better reflect the shape of the liberty ship. And that process  mirrors the way everything from freighters to small sailboats are still shaped in real life, though modern technologies have made the techniques more precise.

“It’s the same idea — how do you move all of this through the ocean, through the water, in as easy a way as possible?” Father Oulvey said.

From the color of the paint to the slightly frayed appearance of the rigging, Father Oulvey said completing his model ship required a significant amount of time-intensive detail work. He said he tried to do a little  each day, though not every day saw physical changes, partly because of his own time constraints and partly because the sequence of the way the parts were put together was so important.

“Part of the reason it took me three years is because I kept staring at it and staring at the plans,” he said, laughing. “But it was therapeutic in a way. After a day of work, I would come down here and I could see something was done, I could see progress.”

As much as the process was about the model itself, Father Oulvey said  he also tried to make the project a specific tribute. The name of the ship, the SS Mark Twain, is one of the ships his father was stationed on. The initials “BTO,” spelled out in signal flags on one of the ship’s sides, are what his father went by during his duty.

With those unique touches in place, Oulvey said the ship is ready for its final journey. The ship is eventually bound for its final port of call, at Father Oulvey’s youngest brother’s house in New York state, on a mantle alongside other reminders of their father’s time in the Merchant Marines. He said he doesn’t know yet when that journey will take place, but he said he is aiming to give the SS Mark Twain a fitting bon voyage when it does happen.

“This thing needs to be berthed. It needs to be docked,” he said. “And someone has a small bottle of sparkling wine, so before it goes, we’ll crack it open here.”

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