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Alumnus John Genther ’23 saved man from waters in Long Island Sound

John Genther ’23 (center) received the Meritorious Public Service Award from the U. S. Coast Guard. From left: John Roberts and Don Orchard of Fishing Partnership Support Services, Genther, Nancy Balcom of Connecticut Sea Grant, Kyra Dwyer of the U.S. Coast Guard. Photo: Judy Benson, Connecticut Sea Grant.

Last updated April 7, 2024

By Tina Underwood

The U.S. Coast Guard awarded John Genther ’23 the Meritorious Public Service Award for saving a man’s life, just nine months after he graduated from Furman.

white bearded man in boat holding a fish

Genther holds a trigger fish that made its way into one of his whelk traps. Photo provided.

It was late one November afternoon, and Genther, working as a commercial whelk fisherman, was hauling in traps or “pots” of the edible sea snails from the cold waters off Long Island Sound. Something blue, about a half mile away, caught his eye. Genther sped over to check out what appeared to be the underside of a small skiff. When he came alongside the overturned vessel, he saw an older man, not wearing a life jacket, barely holding on. The man could scarcely talk in the 55-degree water.

Genther hoisted the unmoving man into his boat, then called 9-1-1. He raced over choppy seas to beach his boat where the two could reach the first responders. Once on shore, Genther, recognizing the signs of hypothermia, began stripping away layers of his own clothes to cover the man and help warm him, reassuring him that help was on the way. EMS arrived just a few minutes later and took over the scene.

Genther credits his quick response to first aid training he received less than two weeks before the rescue, a daylong session taught by Fishing Partnership Support Services and hosted by Connecticut Sea Grant, an organization associated with the University of Connecticut Avery Point.

And he credits the leadership he learned as president of Sigma Nu fraternity at Furman. “I think that a rescue like this takes a certain level of maturity and confidence in one’s abilities,” he said.

After the Coast Guard award ceremony in February, Genther and the man he saved, Paul Killborn, got to know each other and ended up swapping fishing stories. Grateful but embarrassed, Killborn told Genther how he wound up in the sound, where he endured exposure for more than an hour.

As he attempted to raise anchor, a large wave knocked Killborn from the skiff. He struggled to get back in the boat but flipped it. With the boat still anchored and darkness approaching, Killborn realized he needed to move from his remote location so someone could find him. He unclipped the anchor line, drifted about a half mile, and waited. “He wouldn’t have survived a night in the water,” Genther said.

Genther said the experience changed the way he views his job in commercial fishing, an occupation he latched on to as an intern at an oyster farm in his hometown of Madison, Connecticut, the summer of his first year at Furman.

trap containing sea creatures

Genther fishes for whelk (aka “big snails” or conch). Photo provided.

“Obviously, you try to stay safe, but the work became really routine at that point,” he said. “The rescue shocked me back to the idea that anything can go wrong at any moment – you have to stay vigilant. I’m just thankful for the training and that it all worked out,” he added.

Genther majored in business and accounting and Chinese studies at Furman. Managerial accounting helped him understand operating margin, “so I could see how profitable I was on the per-pound sale of conch,” he said.

He plans to keep fishing while exploring full-time employment opportunities in marketing or finance. But he admits the world of fishing is his “dream job.” That first oyster farm internship hooked him.

“I definitely have a passion for it,” he said. “I was enthralled with the idea you could be out on a boat, catch fish and get a paycheck for it,” he said.

And just maybe, you could save a life.



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