To see Jon Wilson at 61, it’s hard to believe he ever thought of himself as what he called, “A flailing and confused post-adolescent; one of the least directed people in my class.” But, after successfully founding, editing, and publishing WoodenBoat magazine and Professional Boatbuilder magazine and founding the WoodenBoat School, he went on to try to help humanity with Hope magazine, and his one-man non-profit organization, JUST Alternatives, which focuses on working with and bringing together victims and perpetrators of violent crimes so victims may move on more freely. But in those early days, his dream was have a boatyard.

Although he lost his father at age eleven, Wilson soon found two father figures who gave him the guidance, morals and ethics that form the foundation of everything he does.

He started working at a tiny grocery store when he was twelve. “Charlie Evans, [the grocer] was wonderful,” he recalled; “a gem of a man. He taught me how to work and the skill of customer appreciation.”

Wilson worked at a boatyard for a couple of summers and after high school. He tried college — his father had taught at the college level — but it didn’t take.

Jack Jacques, who owned Dutch Wharf Boat Yard, in Branford, CT, taught Wilson to be a good boat carpenter and, as Wilson later wrote, “How elegant the design and construction of yachts and boats could be.” The late John Gardner of Mystic Seaport taught him how important history and boatbuilding skills were to the understanding of these vessels.

What Wilson took away from doing wooden boat repairs was seeing what hadn’t worked, understanding that knowledge of what did work was disappearing, and realizing that the master boatbuilders, who rarely saw their boats after launching, were retiring and not passing on their knowledge.

With that, he thought he’d start a newsletter to pass on information, but found that boatbuilders kept trade secrets to themselves. So he switched to thinking about starting a magazine, and to finance it, he and his then-wife, Susie, sold an old Alden ketch they had bought and restored.

In 1973, he wrote Maynard Bray, of Brooklin, then Shipyard Superintendent and Associate Curator for Watercraft at Mystic Seaport, in Connecticut, and others. He followed up with a visit to meet Bray and Mystic Seaport’s Curator of Small Boats, author, and teacher John Gardner. Bray suggested reprinting three 1907 articles loaded with history, wooden boat lore, and architectural drawings of the subject vessels by William Lambert Barnard. Jonathan Wilson published the articles in the first three issues of his magazine, which he called: “The WoodenBoat: the magazine for wooden boat owners, builders and designers.”

By the time Wilson and his wife put the first issue together in a cabin lacking electricity and running water they’d built deep in Brooksville’s woods, he had two subscribers. The nearest telephone was fastened to an old white pine a half-mile closer to civilization.

That first issue, published in September/October 1974, set the pace for quality. It included an article on boatbuilders’ tools by John Gardner, one on building a Chesapeake sharpie by James M. Curry, something for the amateur boatbuilder, a profile, a technical article on woods, book reviews, and a forum where boatbuilders could exchange ideas.

The magazine, despite typos and amateurish editing, had something for everyone interested in wooden boats. “He always made a point of listening,” said an old friend who wished to remain anonymous. “He’s one the of the best listeners I’ve ever met.” Wilson took the results of that listening, study, and hard work to the Newport, RI, Sailboat Show and came away with 200 subscribers and “A sense of accomplishment impossible to describe.”

A period of astonishing growth in subscriptions, the magazine, and locations followed. Along with growth came a need for more capital. Robert Boit, of Penobscot, then president of Union Trust, made the young publisher a loan accepting as collateral 20 acres of cedar.

Wilson’s office in South Brooksville burned nearly to the ground in 1977. The loss included most of the back issues, which had been keeping him afloat financially, as the magazine itself was losing money.

For a while, he published the magazine from his VW bus. Then, once more financed by Boit, he moved again to an old inn in the center of Brooklin.

Wilson wanted to expand, but Boit said, “I was dubious that it would solve his needs. That pushed him to a more sizeable place on Eggemoggin Reach.”

Boit helped him get a mortgage on a grand family mansion and 60 acres of Brooklin waterfront. By late 1977, circulation had reached 25,000, and Bray had become the magazine’s technical editor.

Wilson had the space he needed to start the WoodenBoat School, which opened in 1981.

The late marine architect Joel White, Bray, and Wilson worked together to come up with a design for a pram that could be built by amateurs from a kit. By 1984, the Nutshell pram made its debut in the magazine as circulation neared 100,000. Wilson recognized that WoodenBoat “had a role in changing the way the world saw and understood wooden boats. It was a catalyst.” Of those 100,000 readers, he said, “There I was with a definitely successful magazine. Boy, drop-out makes good!”

A few years later, Wilson started Professional Boatbuilder.

“Something like 92 or 93 percent of all new publications fail,” said Boit. “It wasn’t just a business venture, it isn’t just the quality of the photography, it’s the quality of the print and the paper…it’s a must for a wooden boat owner…It’s awfully easy to have success lower quality, but that hasn’t happened here. Jon had his hands on absolutely everything. That’s what makes him unique.”

Of the magazine, Wilson said, “I was serious about this having an effect, I wanted it to be an enduring resource.” The friend who did not wish to be identified said, “I think it’s played a major role in the wooden boat renaissance.”

Having made a success of a magazine on a dying art, Wilson said he began thinking, “What could we do with a really important idea?” He “wrestled with an idea that became Hope, but not for another ten years.”

Although he retains ownership of WoodenBoat, in 1994 Wilson turned its reins over to the existing staff and said, “I started working in earnest on Hope. I wanted to change the world. I wanted to do for humans what I had done for boats with WoodenBoat.” A rueful expression crossed his face as he said, “Ever the idealist, I approached Hope the same way.” He wanted to inspire. Filled with confidence born of WoodenBoat’s success, he said, “I thought it would be easy.” The first issue came out in 1996, and Wilson said, “I thought people would flock to it.”

But they didn’t. “People felt intimidated,” he said. Deborah Chapman, of Penobscot, added, “It made people feel guilty they weren’t doing more.” Circulation never rose above 25,000. He needed 75,000. He poured money from WoodenBoat’s coffers into Hope year after year: eight and a half in all before stopping publication.

While Hope was sinking, Wilson became interested in victims of violent crimes meeting offenders after spending a day listening to the mother of a murder victim, her only child, talk about living with such violent loss. He said, “I had never understood the profound effects of violence until that moment.” At the same time, he said he learned that he could offer help to such survivors by engaging offenders in the process of answering to the survivors’ needs, he said, “I knew I could walk that very fine line on their behalf.”

With that knowledge, Wilson took training to learn how to listen to both victims and offenders, and for the past seven years has been engaged in Victim-Offender Dialogue (VOD) with an intensity that could best be described as rapt. Subsidized by WoodenBoat, he travels all over the country trying to facilitate understanding between victims and offenders in prisons and out. He said, “I couldn’t do the work I’m doing if it weren’t for the success and support of WoodenBoat.”