A tribute to Long Island legend Percy Heath
March 07, 2008 | 06:24 AM
Last September I was fishing the Montauk Point waters with Jimmy Hancock, a good friend and fellow surf fishing enthusiast, who pointed out a memorial plaque attached to a boulder overlooking Turtle Cove, Long Island's striped bass mecca, which lies in the shadow of Montauk Point Lighthouse.
The bronze faceplate honored Percy Heath, a man who for over 43 years called Montauk home, although his talents and accomplishments were recognized worldwide.
Percy was born in North Carolina on April 30, 1923, and in World War II served with the storied band of black American pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen. After the war, Percy learned to play the bass fiddle and blossomed into a musician extraordinaire who for more than 40 years blazed new trails in jazz with the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet, as well as playing on countless recordings and in sessions with a pantheon of jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie.
Still, the memorial stone at Turtle Cove bespeaks another facet of Percy Heath, a man who was honored among Montauk residents, artists and the fishing community alike as the epitome of a true sportsman, gentlemen and most of all friend.
Percy Heath passed away at the age of 81, on April 28, 2005, and as word spread through the community, sports fishing websites buzzed with the tragic news. Heartfelt tributes and eulogies poured in from all sides; old friends who had fished with Percy for decades in the Montauk surf and other fisherman who briefly encountered Heath and were instantly taken by his generosity, goodwill and sincerity.
A fellow surf fisherman called John P. posted at that time comments which summarized the prevailing sentiment of multitudes of fellow sportsmen whom Percy had touched with his kindness and humanity.
"Montauk has its share of accomplished surf casters, but I don't think anyone commanded more respect or admiration from the local surf casting community. And no one was more deserving of it. ... I am just honored to have met him, and to have shared the beaches with him during some fall blitzes. He made Montauk a better place."
The plaque was set in a 5,000-pound stone and was dedicated at Turtle Cove on May 27, 2006, in a ceremony attended by Percy's wife June and his three sons Percy Jr., Jason and Stuart along with many others from all walks of life. Stuart Heath by the way has picked up his father's fishing mantle and is now regarded by many anglers as one of Long Island's most experienced and elite fishermen.
The bronze engraved plaque is adorned with the sportsman's smiling face and a quote from Heath: "I have been around the world nine times, and I don't want to be any place else but right here in Montauk." Also on the plate is a tribute from his friends and family: "Percy made the music of this place sing on his fishing rod and his fiddle."
Percy first arrived in Montauk with his family in 1953 and they fell in love with the spot immediately. Jack Yee, a fishing buddy who organized the dedication, was quoted at the memorial service as saying: "After a big storm, Percy and June were out here walking on the rocks, and June noticed a big striped bass, caught between two rocks. When she called her husband, he ran down and said, 'This must be the place!'"
Heath, who also fished Long Island waters in his boat, christened The Fiddler, has been credited with coming up with many fishing innovations for the local science of Montauk surf casting, including introducing the 7-inch Red Fin fishing lure to fellow members of the Farragut Striper Club.
Another of Percy's many contributions to his community was his role as founder and leader of the Montauk Artists Association, which now has over 200 members.
Nancy Kuhle, a longtime Montauk resident who works in the gift shop on the grounds of the Montauk Lighthouse also spoke highly of Heath's genuine aura. "My husband Bill and I attended a fundraiser for the Montauk Artists at Ruschmeyer's Restaurant and we met Percy and June Heath. He was so warm and sincere that we felt that we knew him for a long time — a personable couple that we felt connected almost instantly."
This week I went again to Montauk and found a fishing rod and lure had been placed on the ground in front of the memorial in another simple tribute to Percy Heath, whose spirit will live on in the hearts of his many friends as perennially as the striped bass that return each season to this rocky cove.