Leelanau News and Events

Personalities Of The Peninsula: Boatbuilder & Man About Town David Dean

By Patty LaNoue Stearns | Aug. 15, 2022

You might have met David Dean out and about in Leelanau County, but there’s so much more to his story.

For the last 50 years, Dean has lived in a farmhouse on 13 acres high above Suttons Bay, with a jam-packed barn, many cats, and a most spectacular view.

He mingles with high rollers and hippies. He restores vintage cars and yachts and rebuilds all kinds of engines. He had a show on PBS that reached millions of viewers that is soon to be relaunched on YouTube.

At nearly 75, Dean is a man in full, and a man about town. He is never too busy to shoot the breeze with friends — and he has plenty of them. He likes to hang out at Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern in Northport. Every week he volunteers as a mower and groomer for the Leelanau Trail. Every Friday he meets a group of guys at different locations for breakfast. In Suttons Bay, he has taught Detroit-style “coney cuisine” cooking classes at Martha’s Leelanau Table and loves Boone’s classic burgers and hikes the Empire Trail for its devastatingly gorgeous views of Sleeping Bear.

Dean grew up with four brothers and a sister in downstate Birmingham, attending catholic schools and graduating from Brother Rice in 1965. He cruised Woodward Avenue like so many teens did back in the day with souped-up cars. He might have been a lawyer like his father, Charles Dean, who worked in downtown Detroit’s stately Buhl Building, drove a 1960 Porsche Notchback, and often donned a cape and beret.

Or he might have become an actor, like his high school drama teacher recommended, and indeed he has acted in many community productions. But Dean instead took after his grandfather, William Warren Dean, a successful inventor with many industrial patents.

“Some of us were better with our hands,” says Dean, who never realized he was dyslexic until much later in his life. At age 17, he bought a 1961 356 Porsche Coupe for $100, and spent the entire summer building a VW dune buggy and installing the rebuilt motor.

He was accepted at Harvard, but he chose Georgetown University, where he studied foreign service. There, he wasn’t allowed to rent a car, so he rented a truck, and after taking a group to a polo match, he was summarily thrown out. After that he attended Oakland Community College, Eastern Michigan University and Michigan State University — anything to stay out of Vietnam, and he did.

Around 1970, Dean was living in Ann Arbor, working odd jobs, when he and his late former wife, Martha, moved to Leelanau County. “We started meeting people and became part of the culture,” Dean recalls. They had a daughter, Amanda, in 1976. Martha worked at Munson as a nurse. Dean managed a small operation called West Bay Boat Works with Bob Sprenger. “He was a big waterworks engineer — built the water station on Wayne Road (in Traverse City). He taught me everything,” says Dean.

They found the property where Dean lives now, owned by Fred Ball of Ball jar fame, and bought it for a song: $26,500 for the 1880s farmhouse (with actual trees as joists), granary, barn and acreage — astonishing, given the average $550K for a home in Leelanau County’s market today. “The house needed everything,” Dean remembers, but he was up for the job and has been remodeling ever since.

Just as he was nearing 30, however, Dean had a pivotal moment: A cancer diagnosis. After the extensive surgery, chemo and radiation, he couldn’t work for the boatyard anymore. And not long after that, he and Martha divorced. As things go, it was the worst of times.

But then there was another big turn: He got a call from the legendary civil rights attorney Dean Robb, whom he’d met while doing a play together with the Leelanau Players community theater. “He asked me to be his legal investigator,” Dean recalls. The attorney used video in his documentation of evidentiary material, so Dean became a knowledgeable videographer early on, which led him to what would become his PBS show 15 years later.

“Jay Gierkey was doing a show called The Michigan Boater out of Cedar,” says Dean. “He filmed various recreational boating segments, and had me doing the how-to segments. When we did one hilarious segment wearing cold-water survival suits, the mail started pouring in.” 

Dean saw that as a good omen, but Gierkey wanted out. Dean ended up using all his money to buy his friend’s equipment, and filmed his own show in his barn called The Boat Shop. He worked 20 hours a day filming all over the Great Lakes. It was a hit.

“We received 1,000 pieces of mail each week, and the Neilsen ratings were huge,” Dean says, “but it was a tough time for funding.” He did 52 shows in four years, with 70-million TV households in all top ten U.S. markets and in Canada, and he did it all out of his own pocket. “I was hemorrhaging cash, but it was the best of times.”

The show trickled to an end in 2002, but that led to many requests for boat-building projects, and literally tons of restoration: vintage Coast Guard rescue boats at Whitefish Point and Eagle Harbor in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula; actor Tim Allen’s vintage Woody; and a huge three-year job rebuilding and turning a racing boat into a luxury cruising yacht.

Dean, whose motto is “do what you love,” has done a lot. More than most. But he says his greatest achievement is his married daughter, Amanda, a mother of two girls and an RN-BSN in outpatient endocrinology at Ann Arbor’s Veterans Administration hospital.

And The Boat Shop reprise? Keep an eye open for the show on YouTube.

Boatbuilder David Dean (above left) with the late John Kinker.

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