12-Year-Old Changes Coast Guard Festival With A Letter

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Geri McCaleb and Tommy TenCate

Grand Haven Mayor Geri McCaleb (l) sits with Tommy TenCate

GRAND HAVEN, Mich. — As the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw slowly approached her berth at Escanaba Park Monday afternoon, the announcer on shore officially welcomed the ship and welcomed one of its passengers, Tommy TenCate, 12.

Tommy gamely waved and smiled from the deck adjacent to the cutter’s bridge high above the crowd. But to him, it was all over the top.

Sure, getting to board the Mackinaw as she waited on the big lake before Monday’s parade of ships was cool. But all the attention he was getting: not cool.

All he did, he said, is write a letter. But Tommy’s letter made a difference.

Back in June, the Grand Haven city council voted against erecting the “Hollywood sign” type white letters on Dewey Hill across the channel from the city. For the past few years, the letters have spelled out “Coast Guard City USA.” When Tommy heard about that, he wasn’ t happy.

The sign on the hill, for him anyway, had become a crucial part of the Coast Guard Festival experience. Even though the Department of Environmental Quality had weighed in on the issue and said erecting the sign could further hurt Dewey Hill.

But the Grand Haven public took notice when Tommy’s letter was published in the Grand Haven Tribune. Mayor Geri McCaleb read it. And a lot of people told their council members they read it. What’s more, they said they agreed with Tommy.

After a groundswell of support, the decision was reversed, and the letters have stood on Dewey Hill during this year’s Coast Guard Festival.

coast guardAnd everyone agreed that Tommy deserved recognition. And that’s how he found himself and his dad donning life jackets for the ride on a Coast Guard “47” out to the Mackinaw. In the channel, he was allowed to handle the wheel of the boat. On the Mackinaw, he and other guests hung out with the captain and bridge crew as the cutter slowly sailed up the channel and berthed.

All the while, Tommy was adamant: he didn’t write the letter to get attention, especially this kind of attention. He just wanted to have his say. All the while aboard the Mackinaw, Tommy quietly watched and listened as the crew carried out the complicated task of parking a state-of-the-art Coast Guard vessel.

“He’s a thinker,” said his dad. One piece of attention was politely but firmly refused: Tommy TenCate would not be interviewed on camera.

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