Marina captain charts a steady course
SUTTON, W.Va. -- He owns Sutton Lake Marina. The role suits him. He's laid back and social, a veteran boater and a visionary businessman, the perfect persona for overseeing the casual ambiance of an intimate lakeside resort.
At 65, Connecticut native Bill Hunt feels at home in the oasis of serenity he discovered when he moved to Gassaway to set up a new plant in the 1970s.
He was a gearhead in high school and college and a notoriously poor student. His passion for cars and cycles ultimately shifted to refurbishing and showing antique boats.
Eventually, fortuitously, he found his vocational niche in real estate. Rewarded and encouraged by the demand for land in rural West Virginia, he moved on to commercial sales in the bustling, big-city environment around Washington, D.C.
The lake kept luring him back. When the sale sign went up for Sutton Marina in 2008, he bought the place, burned it down and rebuilt it.
Ah, peace at last. Thanks to a little kismet.
"I just started on my 65th trip around the sun. I grew up in Hartford, Conn. My mother was a very difficult woman. She was an attorney before it was cool to be a woman attorney, so she had to be difficult. My father was an architect who worked for the state of Connecticut.
"I had no clue what I wanted to do. I was an absolutely terrible student. I spent my life flunking out of schools.
"I was a greaser -- hot rods, cars and motorcycles, drag racing and auto-crossing. It was an expensive hobby. I earned my own money working at gas stations as a mechanic and at fast food joints.
"I did graduate from high school, finally. I was 1-A and ready to get drafted. Before I was ready to go to Uncle Sam, I drove off in my 1961 Corvette just to travel around.
"I stopped at a bar in Monroe, La., a hangout for kids who were going to Northeast Louisiana University. I stayed with them and partied and drank too much.
"A lot were from New Jersey and New York. I asked what they were doing in Monroe, La., and they said they were going to college. I said, 'You're just as stupid as I am. How can you be going to college?' They said at this school, if you had the tuition you could get in.
"It took me six years to get through high school, but they said I could still go to college there. The dean of admissions asked if I could scrape up the tuition. I said my parents probably would help me. He said, 'Well, you are enrolled for the fall session.'
"What I did not know is that it was a land-grant college. When I signed papers to get into school, I also enrolled in ROTC. So there I was with an M-1 rifle and a helmet parading around the parade fields in the Louisiana sun. Instead of being a grunt in Vietnam, I was slated to be a second lieutenant and shot in the back of the head.
"I had to maintain a 3.0 to stay. If I didn't, I had to write essays and do pleadings to the board of directors. I got pretty good at that.
"Because of my connection with automobiles, I met a lot of guys from Plaquemines Parish up around New Orleans. They were Cajuns and spoke as if they were dead black. They are the greatest people on the planet. My best friend was Felix Dalbor. He lived in the swamps and hadn't seen a car until he was 13, and it was love at first sight, so he was a gearhead.
"These Cajuns and I lived together and had a very good time. Plaquemines Parish was an oil and gas parish and incredibly rich. If you were a high school student and went to Northeast Louisiana University, the parish would pick up the entire tab for your education. That's why all these Plaquemines Parish people were there.
"My lottery number was 284. I have the highest respect for those who went to Vietnam. Some from Plaquemines Parish didn't come back. I beat the draft, but maybe going was something I should have done.
"I stayed in college three years. Finally, the college fired me and I went on my way. It was time to get out in the world.
"My family had a summer place in Leesburg, Va. On a sister farm in Leesburg, I was introduced to Mary. We got married in 1970.
"I was working for Cellular Industries. They were going to move their plant to Gassaway, W.Va., and asked if I would like to move with the plant and put it together.
"Gassaway? Where's that? But I moved here. For six months, I lived in a mobile home and just went from there to the plant. I didn't know this stuff was out here.
"Finally, I took a day off and started looking around. Someone said I should go look at the lake. It was such a beautiful place.
"The Cellular Industries concept was destined to fail. The key people stayed in Connecticut and tried to run the plant long-distance. They had a lot of problems. So I thought it was time for me to bail before the ship went down.
"I lived in Servia on a piece of property I had bought for $50 an acre. I wasn't a hippie. I just tell everybody I came here in the '70s with the hippies.
"I bought a piece of property down the road from us, the most beautiful meadow you ever saw. I paid $65 an acre. I figured if I thought it was beautiful, somebody else would, too. So I put an ad in The Washington Post for $150 an acre and sold it in one weekend. I did that again and again, and that's how I got into the real estate business.
"An insurance agent in town said I should be a broker. I called the commission in Charleston. They said I had the experience in sales, but I would have to take a test.
"They said to get a book, "Prentice on Real Estate," and when I knew everything in that book, I should come take the test. On the sixth try, I got it, and I was a real estate broker.
"My first boat was a 43-foot steel Stardust Cruiser houseboat. This boat sat on the lake a long time and electrolysis had eaten holes in the hull. We bought it and coated it with tar and rebuilt it.
"I owned it with a good friend. Then he got married and that changed things. He ended up buying my half. So here I was without a boat. All I wanted was a fast ski boat to teach kids how to ski.
"In Fairmont, I found a 1965 Century Resorter. I had no clue about old wooden boats. I redid it, and that was the beginning of the antique and classic boat hobby. Our kids grew up on this lake water skiing behind that boat.
"A guy had a Century Resorter that he ran over an island at Wolf Creek. That's the first one we totally redid. I called a man at Smith Mountain Lake where they have a big antique and classic boat show. I said I wanted to bring a '66 Resorter but it wasn't judging quality. He said, 'Bring the boat and you will have fun.' And that started us taking boats to all the shows.
"The Cocktail Cruiser was a very special and very photographed boat, but it wasn't as correct as it could have been. Miss Mur, named my wife's childhood nickname, was a national award winner.
"We left here around '87. I was doing real estate and oil and gas work and all that stuff just collapsed. Mary's mother needed someone to be with her. So we kept our farm and kept our boats on the lake, but we moved to Leesburg.
"With a real estate license, I had something to do in northern Virginia, but you can imagine coming from this environment and dropping into the fastest paced real estate market on the planet. It was a big transition.
"We started doing exclusively commercial work. That was very successful and built the monetary base that gave us the ability to buy the marina and come back here.
"We took over at the end of the 2008 season. It was like an old house falling down. You'd try to fix something and something else would fall apart. So we piled it all up and burned it. The marina now is great. We built something here that's a real asset to the state.
"We now have 250 slips, close to 100 with water and electric. We replaced all our gasoline equipment and can supply ethanol-free fuel.
"We built this store. Facilities used to be way out in the water. We built our store close to the entrance so people can come and enjoy it. We're getting rid of the stigma that people at the marina are elite and don't want anyone coming in here.
"We did some beautiful bathrooms this year and a nice shower facility. The total investment is beyond six figures.
"Ray DeNuzzo is our dockmaster. His son graduated from a big technical college in Florida, Wyotech. They have a top-notch marine mechanic program. So we went there.
"We got a call from one of the young men we talked to, Hayden Sawyer. I told him to spend a weekend here to see if life in central West Virginia is what he wanted. He loved it. Now he lives here. If somebody breaks something, he fixes it. We also do fiberglass and structural work.
"I lived in a pressure cooker for 25 years, so I enjoy this. This is my retirement. I'm fortunate. I've made a ton of money doing things I mostly enjoyed doing. I've got a lovely wife of 40 years and our two children are doing well. I have zero regret."
Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5173.