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Posted 8/17/2017

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By Chris Gardner

Harold Catlett’s sudden death shocked his team members at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District. When the time came for Baltimore District to replace its aging survey vessel with a newer model, it only seemed fitting that the vessel be named after a man who inspired so many.

A sorrowful surprise

When Harold Catlett passed away suddenly on April 25, 2014, his friends and family were all in disbelief. 

Steve Golder, chief of the Survey and Debris Removal Section for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, still remembers it.

Catlett’s sister told him on a Sunday, a couple days after his passing, and he notified teammates who had worked with Harold.

“I told the team the same day, and everyone was shocked,” Golder said. “It was a major surprise to us. People took it very hard.”

Harold Catlett, the man

Catlett had been a member of the Baltimore District since 1978 and had been working out of the District’s field office at Fort McHenry Yard, where the District’s boats have operated out of, since 1985.

Prior to joining Baltimore District, Catlett grew up in Baltimore County and joined the Marines in 1973 after graduating from Woodlawn High School.

After four years in the Marines, he was honorably discharged as a corporal and started his nearly 30-year career with Baltimore District.

Catlett started as a land surveyor; however, in the 1980s, the District was contracting out more of its in-house land surveying, so he was moved to Fort McHenry to work as a hydrographic surveyor — helping to map channels to ensure safe and efficient navigation.

“Harold was a very nice person, and a hard worker,” Golder said. 

He also noted that Catlett earned a reputation for producing quality work.

“It got to the point where all the project managers wanted him to do their work because they were so confident in him,” Golder said. “They just felt that if Harold did their job that it was going to be correct.”

Retiree Tom Conroy, who worked with Catlett first as a land surveyor and then as a hydrographic surveyor with Baltimore District, echoed the sentiment of the quality of Catlett’s work and his positive disposition.

“Harold was meticulous about the work he did. He was very, very level headed. I don’t remember him ever raising his voice. But he did darned good work,” Conroy said. “You know, he cared about the work he did; he treated his people very well.”

Catlett spent most of his career in navigation working on the smaller survey vessels known as the Hydros, which are stored on land and generally towed from job to job via a trailer hitch. In this role, he acted as a mentor for countless hydrographic surveyors new to the Corps and new to the trade.

“On a small boat, you’ve gotta take care of the boat; you’ve gotta get the boat down there; you’ve gotta get the boat in the water; you’ve gotta set up everything, so you’re doing so much,” Golder said. “New people coming in, that’s how you learn how to be a hydrographic surveyor is working on the small boat because you took care of everything, and Harold was the one who showed you what to do and then let you do it. Everybody who went on his boat, they wanted to be with him, and they learned a lot.”

Tony Sazaklis, a hydrographic surveyor who has been with Baltimore District since he first started as seasonal help in the 1980s, remembers Catlett as a patient teacher.

“Harold was an easy, quiet teacher who blended in with the student; he did not make a distinction that he was above you,” Sazaklis said. “He showed another way of doing something and stood by while you did it over and over again, even with the same mistake you made. He just laughed and did it with you again.”

In addition to Catlett teaching new hydrographic surveyors the basics of the job, he also taught the team the changing business of surveying over the years.

“Harold helped the entire survey section to transition from lead line hydro surveys to what we do today,” Sazaklis said, referring to an older method of determining depths by dropping a rope with graduated depth-markings and a lead weight attached to the end. “I helped him numerous times to unload computers from the boat to the hotel room that he stayed in and worked on all by himself until he learned the new technology and then showed it to the others, as well.”

Naming Survey Vessel CATLETT

Sazaklis said that it only makes sense to name the District’s new survey vessel, complete with the latest available technology for mapping channels, after Catlett.

“Naming the boat after Harold was a great idea,” Sazaklis said. “Why? Very simply, he represents a new era of surveying for the District from lead lines for boats, chains, tapes, and turning angles, to GPS technology on boats.”

The discussion of replacing Baltimore District’s 40-year-old Survey Vessel LINTHICUM had been around for a while, but it was originally just assumed to be named either LINTHICUM II or Survey Vessel CHESAPEAKE after the Chesapeake Bay.

Survey Vessel LINTHICUM, built in 1976, was named after Herbert Linthicum, a World War II veteran who worked in Baltimore District for 23 years in the 1940s through the 1960s.

After Catlett’s passing, Golder said a lot of the team began suggesting naming it after their late respected teammate.

“I asked everybody what they wanted to name the boat, and, overwhelmingly, everybody said the CATLETT,” Golder said. “The majority of the time, you see plaques on boats named after people who’ve passed sometimes before you were born. To know that the boat is named after somebody that you know, they all feel pride in that.”

Conroy noted that the naming of the vessel also speaks directly to Harold Catlett — teacher, teammate and friend.

“To me, it’s a way to respect the work that he did over his years. I think this vessel will set some very high standards, and it keeps his memory and his name alive.”

baltimore district Baltimore Harbor Hydrographic Surveying navigation Survey Vessel CATLETT U.S. Army Corps of Engineers