John Kotzian grew up hearing compelling stories about his great-great-grandfather, the Rev. William H. Law. He'd been told how his ancestor was the first white settler and homesteader in the area now known as Hessel in the Upper Peninsula, and how Law used to sail around the Great Lakes bringing cheer to isolated lighthouse keepers and life saving station personnel.
"That's basically all I knew about him," said Kotzian, a graduate of Hillman High School and the son of John and Pam Kotzian of Hillman.
When Kotzian unexpectedly found himself out of a job in 2010 with the closing of the Michigan-based Borders bookstore chain, where he had worked for 12 years in quality assurance for the company's point of sales systems, he decided to spend some time conducting family research and see what else he could find out about his great-great-grandfather, affectionately known as the Sky Pilot of the Great Lakes.
"I had a lot of time on my hands. That's when the research started," said Kotzian, who has since ended up doing the same job he did at Borders out of his home in Brooklyn, but instead for companies all over the world.
Kotzian's quest for information wasn't motivated by a desire to write a book about his intriguing relative, though that's been the ultimate result. In April, he published "Sky Pilot of the Great Lakes - A Biography of the Reverend William H. Law."
His 224-page work is being hailed by Lighthouse Digest Magazine as one of the best lighthouse-related books written in the last five years. Copies can be found in lighthouse-related gift shops all around the Great Lakes, and Kotzian will return to his hometown on Saturday for a book signing from 1-3 p.m. at Brush Creek Mill in Hillman.
"I found a story there - a really amazing story," Kotzian said of the information he uncovered about Law. "People said you need to put this into a book. I said, 'I don't know if I can write a book,' but then I figured I know enough to know what I don't know so I know I can ask people for help."
With that in mind, he turned to Frederick Stonehouse, a renowned maritime historian, author and lecturer, who became a mentor and encouraged him to record on paper the story of Law's extraordinary life and accomplishments. Stonehouse also hooked Kotzian up with another successful author who assisted in the editing process.
According to the research, Law was born in Canada and up until the age of 40, labored there as a Baptist minister. He eventually moved to the United States after disaffliating with his church.
"He would walk around the Eastern U.P. and find logging villages and Native American villages, and spread the word," Kotzian said. "He found a place next to Cedarville, moved his family there and went through the Homestead Act and the Naturalization Act at the same time. He got 160 acres, then sold off all the timber. That gave him enough money to buy what is Hessel today."
Law constructed a large community center in Hessel that doubled as his home, a church, a library and a place for people needing temporary shelter.
The real meat of Law's story, however, deals with the lighthouses and life saving stations he visited over the course of many years. The seeds for what became Law's life mission to serve the lonely men, women and children stationed in remote places throughout the Great Lakes was a frightening gale that forced his boat up against rocks at Bois Blanc Island. The men of the life saving station there rescued him and his boat, and because of the storm, he was stranded there with them for three days.
"He learned what they did, how they had to put their lives on the line and how lonely it can be living on those remote islands," Kotzian said. "He asked them what they did for fun, and they didn't really have an answer for him."
That's when Law decided to get safely back home, then make a return visit to the island, and bring them books and other materials to help keep them occupied during their long and lonely days in service.
"It started that summer. He visited all the lighthouses and life saving stations he could in the summer. He gave them materials, fruits and candies, toys for the kids. He wanted to give them one good day."
What set Law's mission apart from many others was that each winter after he'd returned home from his mission work, he'd settle in to write an annual book about the places he'd visited that year, the people he had interacted with, their trials and tribulations, and how they daily lived while manning the life saving stations and working as lighthouse keepers. In all it is estimated that Law wrote between 28 to 30 books, providing a clear maritime snapshot of time and place.
Besides finding newspaper clippings about his great-great-grandfather and talking to people associated with the places he'd visited all those years ago, Kotzian was able to track down 15 of Law's books. He also unearthed a book that had been written about his relative in 1910.
"It was a book written about him in 1910 by a guy he met on a train in Milwaukee, which gave insight into his character," Kotzian said. "Here he struck up a conversation and the guy writes a book about him."
Kotzian admits Law wasn't the greatest writer in the world and that sometimes he let his frustrations with the government shine through. One of the most important contributions Law made, he said, was to help push through a bill that resulted in better pay and pensions for life saving station personnel. Though Law hoped for those same benefits for lighthouse keepers and their families, he died two years before that became a reality.
Kotzian's book currently is available online at Amazon, Avery Color Studios, and Barnes and Noble. For more information, go to the author's website at www.johnkotzian.com.