Captivated

By Sally Anne Flecker | Fall 2016

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Paul McCarthy: 1953 - 2016

In the wee hours of the new millennium, perhaps the only adult in Washington, D.C., who was not breathing a sigh of relief that the Y2K scare had amounted to a lot of worry about nothing was Paul McCarthy (MBA/JD ’79). McCarthy happened to be a businessman who often staged one-off sorts of events. His pedigree included an advanced degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. One of his former classmates, who at the time was with the Bill Clinton administration, had tapped McCarthy to serve as executive director of the White House’s America’s Millennium three-day extravaganza.

Which is why McCarthy was still on edge, even after the clock struck 12.

Sure, the White House dinner with 300 of the “best and brightest” was successfully behind him. The pyrotechnics at midnight off the Washington Monument — the very ones that had required an Act of Congress — had gone off without a hitch. The gala concert at the Lincoln Memorial was coming to a close. Five hundred thousand people in attendance and not one arrest, not even for disorderly conduct. You’d think he could pat himself on the back and take it easy.

But no. There were still two days of special events at the Smithsonian and another day of festival doings on Constitution Avenue. Then, when everything was said and done, McCarthy had to make sure his $15-million budget balanced out. Only then could he breathe a sigh of relief and turn back to his boat and his business on the pristine Captiva Island off Florida’s Gulf Coast.

McCarthy’s boat was his business, as a matter of fact. The Massachusetts native’s story started in Chicago — although his boat is how he got to Florida, literally and figuratively. McCarthy lived a few blocks from Lake Michigan when he moved to Chicago in 1979 as a corporate lawyer at Sidley & Austin.

“I used to walk to work,” he said earlier this summer. “The lake was in my face.” He was amazed by all the open space along the lakefront. “Coming from Boston, it seemed the lakefront was underutilized,” he remembered. “There weren’t a lot of opportunities to get out on the lake and the river.” The untapped resource was a business opportunity waiting to happen.

He got his chance during the annual NeoCon design exposition, attended by architects, designers and builders from far and away. As a promotion, he proposed a tour, from the water, of Chicago’s magnificent architecture. It had never been done before. But on the first day, when only 15 people signed on for the inaugural excursion — the boat’s capacity was 100 — McCarthy spent the trip second-guessing his instincts.

 

When the boat returned to moor, though, he looked up to see that the wooden staircase leading down to the dock was packed with people eagerly awaiting their turn on the Chicago River. “We were off to the races,” he said. In fact, it would turn out to be a marathon.

The one-time promotional tours turned into a regular business during the tourist season. In 1982, McCarthy left the law firm to earn a master’s in public administration at Harvard. Summers, he returned to Chicago to run the architectural tours.

He may have continued along this way, but a chance trip to warmer climes caused another unexpected shift in his journey.

Florida wasn’t a place that stirred much interest in McCarthy — that is, until he visited the unspoiled Sanibel and Captiva islands off the Gulf Coast, becoming mesmerized by the beauty and, of course, seduced by the weather. “It didn’t look like any place I had ever been,” he remembered. He could have the best of both worlds, he figured out, dovetailing the May-through-September business in Chicago with six months in Florida, operating a mix of environmental and island programs and sunset cruises. That left him a month to navigate the boat right down the Mississippi.

That was 1986. That split season had long since given way to a year-round business in Florida. McCarthy, who also owned McCarthy’s Marina, where he harbored a six-boat fleet, including one sailboat, partnered often with the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation to provide programs on the natural environment, marine mammal research, shoreline protection, and the water ecosystem.

McCarthy died unexpectedly in late August of natural causes. His was a vibrant personality and he was never short of exciting plans for the future. He was preparing to take a group of 85 tourists by private plane to Havana in January. Next year, he was looking forward to taking a group to Bermuda for five days in conjunction with the America’s Cup. He was proud to be kicking off his 30th year of business on Captiva with 30 events planned, including cruises featuring a symphony orchestra and others with former inaugural poet Richard Blanco. All in all, he would have said he was living the life, doing what he loved.

Mere weeks before he died, he reflected on his unexpected career. “Making the decision to pursue this small business enriched my life,” he said. “I really enjoy the multidisciplinary nature of it. I love having my own business and creating things. It gave me the ability to do things I wouldn’t have been able to do in a structured corporate or legal job. So it set up the framework to do an amazing variety of different things in different places with different people.”