John de Poo, a wonderful, humorous, and kind man, died on Feb 20, 2014 in Key West, Florida. He was born on April 18, 1924, and was the son of Isabelle Anti de Poo and Dr. Julio de Poo – the founder of de Poo Hospital in Key West. His father and grandfather were both doctors who practiced originally in Havana, Cuba. He was a descendant of the poet Martina Pierra de Poo and explorer Fernando de Poo. John was proud that he had been able to swim in the warm waters of “Playa de Poo” in Asturias, Spain.
As a child, John attended school in Key West and then a military “finishing school” in Cuba, Academia Militar de Pittman, where he learned to speak Spanish fluently. At 15 years of age, John became an apprentice at the machine shop at the Naval Base in Key West. He enjoyed working with his hands, whether making tools at work or playing the drums with bands after work.
On Leonard Bernstein’s visit to Key West in August, 1941, he met a group of teenagers, including John, on the beach and listened to Cuban music on their radio. John took Mr. Bernstein to his family home to listen to Cuban records on his father’s Victrola. They listened to the music together as John played the various beats of the music on his bongo drums. Mr. Bernstein, much impressed, wrote some music called “Conch Town” while visiting, which was later used in “West Side Story.”
At 17, John enlisted in the United States Merchant Marines the day after Pearl Harbor Day, and served on tankers that delivered fuel, troops and supplies. He proudly served “every day of World War II and still lived to talk about it,” as he used to say. During World War II, the Merchant Marine death rate was the highest compared to all other branches of the military. At one point, John and his fellow crewmen were forced to abandon ship when it caught fire. He received Atlantic and Pacific War Zone Medals for his service.
At the conclusion of the war, and just 2 weeks after arriving home to Key West, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, and because of his war service, was sent to instructor school. At his first base, the senior officer told John he would be instructing men how to cook! When John explained that he had no cooking experience, the officer said, “We know what we’re doing, the Army has been around a long time. Just read this book to the men.” John managed to teach his class how to cook, reading the book each night and staying one step ahead of the class.
After his Army service, he attended Florida State University on the GI bill to become an anesthesiologist. John wanted to make his father proud by becoming a doctor, but he also had a very caring nature and wanted to help others. During his schooling, while serving a grueling internship in a morgue, he realized becoming a doctor was not for him.
John left college and became a Monroe County Florida Deputy Sheriff, was elected to and served as a Key West City Commissioner and also worked as a master carpenter at Boca Chica Naval Station in Key West. He caught several high-profile criminals during his tenure as a Deputy Sheriff, and retrieved a boat from Cuba that fugitives had stolen. John had many different careers, but in all of them, his ability to tell stories and speak Spanish served him well.
John learned to cook very well and was well-known for his wonderful Cuban dishes of Picadillo, Arroz con Pollo and Flan. One summer in the 1970’s, he became personal cook for New York Governor Hugh Carey, while simultaneously appearing on stage in a play. He was personal assistant to Judith Hope during her time as Town Supervisor of East Hampton. He also accompanied Walter Weiss to Havana to interview Fidel Castro, as Mr. Weiss needed an interpreter.
John led an adventurous life; high-diving into shallow pools of water as a child, racing motorcycles, windsurfing, hang-gliding, and trying anything that would satisfy his daredevil spirit. He was the first person to windsurf Napeague Harbor and taught many to windsurf, including Jack Graves of the East Hampton Star, and Erling Hope of Sag Harbor, who won numerous windsurfing competitions. In his later years, John enjoyed paddle boarding at Mecox Bay and walking Haven’s Beach in Sag Harbor.
He acted in over 30 plays, appearing at Guild Hall in East Hampton, The Bridgehampton Community House, and Tennessee Williams Theatre in Key West. He was a Shakespeare scholar who could quote lines from the playwright’s numerous plays.
He drew caricatures of friends and painted, sewed clothing and boat sails, welded metal gears and “parts” into sculptures, crafted many unique but functional items for his own home as well as those of his friends. He was a highly skilled craftsman who built homes, decks, crafted furniture from driftwood, and built sailboats and catamarans.
Close friend, movie producer Peter Dohanos, cast John in the Hallmark movie “Stubby Pringle’s Christmas.” John was happy to be in the movie, but more delighted to ride in the limousine to the set with Beau Bridges and Julie Harris, who starred in the movie. He appeared as a dentist in magazine commercials, and in television commercials for Audi; he never forgot having to parallel park that darn car on Main Street in East Hampton over and over.
He loved to dance and enthralled us with tales from his days in Cuba, where girls would attach glowing fireflies to pins and put them in their dark hair before coming to dance with the boys at the military school.
He enjoyed listening to the Sag Harbor Community Band each summer, marching on the sidewalk with the youngsters who came to hear the band with their families.
John enjoyed music, especially Cuban music, and played the bongo drums, maracas, guiro, claves, as well as the harmonica. He played his harmonica for the last time during the full moon in February in Key West, entertaining a group of friends by the backyard fire pit, the moonlight bouncing off the gulf waters and a cool breeze on his face. His audience clapped and John beamed with pride; he always enjoyed entertaining an audience.
Because of his unique storytelling abilities, he was often asked to do public speaking and emcee charity auctions; he spoke masterfully at the Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome ceremony in Miami.
John was well known for his complex practical jokes, zany annual photo cards, and that devious twinkle in his eye. He was a master storyteller and could mimic accents and mannerisms perfectly.
In the 1970’s, John started splitting his time between Long Island and Key West and also traveled extensively throughout the world. He worked over 25 years for John Caramagna Builders in East Hampton, building houses designed by the architect Charles Gwathmey. He was an enthusiastic adventurer who had an eye for detail and a unique philosophy of life, which was “Less is More”. He believed that the less possessions a person had, the more time they could spend enjoying life and less time looking after possessions.
A unique man to the end, John contracted a unique illness, West Nile Encephalitis, in the summer of 2013, but recovered splendidly with the help of his wonderful doctor, Dr. William Blake Kerr of Wainscott. A special thank you is extended to Dr. Kerr and his caring staff for making ordinary visits to the doctor extraordinary, as well as helping John recover from West Nile.
John left his home in Sag Harbor February 1st of this year and arrived in Key West in time to deliver Valentine’s Day flowers and cards to many friends. He watched the Sochi Winter Olympics, awed by the skill and artistry of the participants. The night before he died, thrilled with the speed of the bobsledders and snowboarders, he declared, “I want to fly like that!” He died suddenly the next morning from an aortic aneurysm and went swiftly, just the way he had hoped his end would come, a quick exit with a smile on his face.
He served as a father figure to many teenagers, teaching building trades, windsurfing, sailing, driving, as well as a playful and joyful engagement with life and with other people. His generous and loving heart made him a friend to all and he will be missed by those he touched throughout his life. He was truly the epitome of the Renaissance Man, a polymath.
John is survived by his wife Lauren Chase de Poo, who is honored to have spent the last 14 years happily by his side. He will be missed by so many people, including his surrogate families: Marlys and Daisy Dohanos; John, Nina, Peter, and Daisy Landi; Mary, Oliver, and Maxwell Ryan; Chester, Pilili, Bede, and Chet Knowles; John and Jude Caramagna; Leif, Judith, Erling, Nanao, Nisse, Soren, Isaiah, and Luka Hope. Luka, you shared such a special bond with John and there’s no need to fight over who gets the recliner now.
There will be a joyous celebration of John’s life in East Hampton in May, details to be announced. It will be a celebration not only because we will share food, wine and a beautiful view of Gardiner’s Bay, but we will share stories of this truly amazing man and how he touched all of us in his very special way.