Ahoy Santa!

For Dianne Robertson, Christmas is a time to celebrate memories of life on the water with a tree full of sea-going ornaments

Photo by Sam Arendt

By MITCH MAERSCH

Ozaukee Press staff

He’s on a canoe, a jet ski, powerboat, sailboat and an inner tube. He’s water skiing, napping with his wife on one boat, partying on another and is dressed as a pirate.

Santa Claus does all of this on Dianne Robertson’s Christmas tree in her Port Washington home. Every one of her ornaments has an nautical theme. This Christmas, 315 adorn her tree.

The tree represents one of her and her late husband Pat’s passions. He had a boat in the Port marina for decades, and they spent every minute of free time they could on the water.

“You couldn’t get my husband away from the lake,” she said.

The two met through Robertson’s friend, whose father had a boat across from her future husband’s on the pier in Port Washington.

Dianne gave a lifering ornament to her Pat in 1986 when they were friends, unknowingly starting their Christmas tradition. They married three years later and began acquiring nautical ornaments.

“These are my favorite — the engines,” Robertson said. “My husband used to race boats so some of them are very meaningful.”

Pat was from Whitefish Bay and grew up in the Town of Milwaukee (now Bayside) He raced speedboats and had owned a sailboat.

Dianne grew up near the Milwaukee Brewers’ first home, County Stadium, and grew into the love of boating through her husband.

The couple had a 36-foot tri-cabin powerboat in the Port harbor, then a Boston Whaler.

The Christmas tree has ornaments from across the world and every nautical-related element imaginable.

“I’ve even got the Titanic on the tree.. Of course, that’s not a good thing, is it?” Robertson said.

Noah’s Ark, lanterns, lighthouses that light up, dolphins, pirates, ship captains, ship wheels, a ship in a bottle, an orange lifevest and a multi-colored windsock adorn the tree.

Some ornaments come from her travels. One is from the island of Mykonos and another is from Israel.

Small seagulls with wide wingspans are among several ornaments from the old Christmas in Port shop. Many others have local ties, including the Port pierhead lighthouse, the 1860 Light Station and a Smith Bros. fishing tug and shanty.

One lifering has a photo of Robertson and her husband inside, and a captain with angel wings represents her husband.

The top of the tree features a propeller.

“It just happened,” Robertson said of ornament collection. “We didn’t go out looking to start something like this. We wouldn’t hunt them down, but if we saw them at a store we’d buy them.”

Even the blue tree skirt has nautical symbols along its edges.

The Christmas tree isn’t the only thing that celebrates the love of water in Robertson’s house. Nautical objects can be found on the walls and in every corner. A fog horn and brass bell also sit on the floor.

On a wall is a rendition of a navigational chart, with Robertson’s time and distance notes used for navigating across Lake Michigan before the days of GPS.

As they would near the Michigan shore,  she said, “You’d hope to see the right name on the water tower.”

A wooden coffee table in the room with the big Christmas tree has a real porthole built into its center.

Another wall has a broken propeller from one of the couple’s boats. Pat said he didn’t want to throw it away.

An anchor sits on the patio.

The home’s mantel has lighthouse scenes with Santas.

“It’s a nautical house for sure,” Robertson said.

The mantel has a Jesus boat from Galilee and Christmas-themed houses that light up. Robertson leaves them in place year-round in honor of her husband.

Pat spent time on the water around his career as an independent insurance agent. He retired in 2007 and died in 2015.

Dianne followed her family into the public service field; her father was a firefighter and her mother was a third-grade teacher. Robertson worked as a municipal employee for about 45 years, first for 19 years in West Milwaukee, then six in Greendale — she led the effort to build Greendale Safety Center — and 19 years as village administrator of Thiensville, as well as its clerk/treasurer for a while.

Robertson remembers starting with a general ledger and no computers. Not long after the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, she stayed at a hotel between the Twin Towers in New York City to pitch her case to Moody’s bond credit rating company when a municipality wanted to borrow money. She retired in 2019 but still sometimes helps municipalities when needed.

After Thanksgiving is when Robertson’s seasonal work starts. It takes her three days to decorate the Christmas tree.

Her round-bellied rescue cat, Cookie, doesn’t mess with the tree, unlike one of her former cats, who tried to climb it.

Come January, the ornaments are returned to three Rubbermaid containers, separated by dish towels, and the tree comes down.

“I don’t ever get sick of it, but it comes time when you start hoping for spring,” Robertson said.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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