In the 1950s, Susan Womer Katzev’s family left the St. Louis area to move to the small Western Pennsylvania town of St. Mary’s. Susan enrolled at the local high school, but her parents were not sure it was right for her.
“I was getting A’s in science class,” she recalls. “My father was a physicist and he knew I wasn’t an A student.”
That, and the fact that Susan was dating a football player did not go over well in the Womer household. They transferred their daughter to an all-girls school in Pennsylvania, but that was overkill since she soon started standing up whenever they entered a room; eventually, they learned of a private school some 135 miles away, in Snyder, NY. They brought Susan up for an interview at The Park School, where she enrolled for 10th grade, ultimately graduating in 1958.
To enable their daughter to attend Park, Susan’s mother moved to Snyder and rented an apartment. Susan’s father, who worked for a carbon and graphite company in St. Mary’s, came to visit on weekends.
“It was a sacrifice I have always been so grateful for,” Katzev said, “because Park was really the highlight of my educational experience by far.”
Education and learning became lifelong pursuits for Katzev, who is now retired and living in Maine. Upon graduation, Katzev was admitted to Swarthmore College. She deferred her admission in order to explore her artistic talents at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, then enrolled at Swarthmore for four years.
During her sophomore year, Katzev got what she calls “a lucky break.” A Swarthmore professor had heard a talk by a young man who was pioneering underwater archeology in the Mediterranean. He was looking for talented people to work for him, including artists. The professor suggested Katzev apply.
The young man, George Bass, hired Katzev as an artist-draftsman. Bass, who is known as the father of underwater archeology, employed her for several summers, then hired her as a full time secretary/assistant. While working on a project in Bodrum, Turkey, she met Michael Katzev, who became her husband in 1966. The Katzevs, along with Bass, continued their undersea expeditions in the Mediterranean.
In 1967, Michael Katzev was giving a talk about underwater archeology at the U.S. Embassy on Cyprus. A U.S. Marine there told the Katzevs about a man in the town of Kyrenia, who had discovered a shipwreck that they might find interesting. The Katzevs met the man, Andreas Cariolou, who took them to the wreck site, near Kyrenia. They dove ninety feet and saw the tombstone of a Greek merchant ship from the 4th century BC.
“To our eyes it was the most beautiful sight that we had ever seen under water,” Katzev recalls. “It was just a pristine mound of amphoras, about 80 of them showing on the surface.”
Michael Katzev, who was teaching at Oberlin College, mounted a team of more than 50 people to begin excavation.
“There was no alternative but to go full speed ahead,” Katzev said. “This was to be my husband’s new dissertation project. That was the start of the journey that has enveloped the rest of my life. It certainly was the focus of my husband’s professional life too.”
The Kyrenia Ship was very well-preserved, considering the number of years it spent under the Mediterranean. The excavators salvaged some 6,000 separate pieces of the Hellenistic ship. Then there was the matter of, in Katzev’s words, figuring out how to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
When the Katzevs were traveling back in the U.S., a man from Pennsylvania named Richard Steffy came to hear a talk by Michael Katzev. The Katzevs went out for a drink with him afterward and realized they had just met the right man to reassemble the ship. Steffy, an electrical contractor, left his business behind in Lancaster, PA, and moved to Cyprus to work on the project. A just-released book, The Man Who Thought Like a Ship, tells his story.
Michael Katzev chronicled the salvaging of the Kyrenia Ship several times in National Geographic, and in a film titled With Captain, Sailors Three. It took about five years for the ship to be reassembled. In the 1980s, a replica was built, called Kyrenia II, which today stands in a museum in Cyprus.
The Katzevs bought a house near Kyrenia, intending to stay there for life, but political unrest made that unwise, so they moved to Greece, continuing their research work there. They later returned to the States, eventually settling on the island of Southport, ME, where they built a house overlooking the sea. Michael Katzev died in the house of a stroke on September 8, 2001.
Katzev lives in their home, pursuing her love of sculpture and fine art, and helping put together a written chronicle of their life’s work with the Kyrenia Ship.
Katzev said that she thinks a lot about the men who sailed the ancient merchantman the day she sank in 294 BC. “Maybe that’s part of my Park School upbringing,” she said. “We used to do a lot of things with our hands. This has stuck with me, I think because I want to know people lived on this ship and how they made things. Park trained us to be practical!”
In the 2010 edition of the Park Pioneer, a piece titled “The Maine Six” told the story of Katzev’s group of Park School friends and their lifelong bond, which remains strong today, more than 50 years after graduation. The group still has regular gatherings–a lively 50th Reunion in 2008, a weekend at Susan’s home in Maine in 2010–and is planning their next one for Centennial Weekend, this coming October.
Susan and her friends never imagined during their high school years that their shared Park School experience would be so meaningful, but know now what a tremendous opportunity they were given. In the Pioneer article, Susan reflected on her time at Park: “We felt there was nothing we couldn’t accomplish–the way we learned to organize our work, and develop our writing skills. It changed my life and made it much richer.”