Obituary: Ralph Preston, 1927-2020 | Obituaries | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Obituary: Ralph Preston, 1927-2020 

A master ship-in-bottle maker lived a life of love and humor

Published July 9, 2020 at 6:00 a.m. | Updated December 23, 2020 at 6:51 p.m.

Ralph Preston died peacefully on June 8 after having lived a long, full life with many friends and a large, loving family built with love and humor throughout his many decades.

Ralph was born in Lowell in 1927. His was the first house with electricity in a town almost unreachable on dirt roads in mud season. His father was a car mechanic and imparted to Ralph his love of mechanics and engineering, which Ralph pursued at the University of Vermont and University of Pennsylvania. Like many in his generation, he enlisted in the Navy during World War II and served in the South Pacific. He helped liberate a Japanese POW camp, served on a minesweeper and even disobeyed a direct order so he could save a commander from sure death using his backwoods skills honed in the Green Mountain State. He lived for most of his adult life in a Hinesburg house he built himself and taught mathematics for many decades at Saint Michael's College.

You didn’t have to spend much time with Ralph before you’d hear about either of his twin passions: swing dancing and ship-in-bottle making. The fires for both were lit in him at a young age, and they burned bright until very late in his life. Many Vermonters in the Burlington area can still recall seeing Ralph on the dance floor at swing and ballroom dancing events.

He taught himself to build models at an early age and became the world master of the craft, having lectured widely around the world. His Charles W. Morgan model was the most valuable ship-in-bottle ever sold and now resides at the German Technical Museum. Two of his other most prized models are of the Lunar Landing vehicle, which he gave to the astronaut Michael Collins, and the USS Eagle, the training ship of the Coast Guard. His payment for that model was a trans-Atlantic ride on the Eagle itself, which became one of his life highlights. (See his work at

Ralph was an epic storyteller, complete with surprising plot twists and a cadence to keep you hanging on every word. He told of the “big cat” that followed him at night on the island in the Philippines; his Native American grandfather; and his dog, Ren, with whom he built a small cave under a tree for himself and shared his first and probably only cigarette. (Pro-tip: Want to make it to 92? Take a page out of Ralph’s handbook by not smoking or drinking.) There was that time when he diverted a stream as a young boy, which led to a feud of neighbor farmers. And, sadly, the tragedy of his first love, Nancy, the Swedish girl whose engagement to Ralph and whose life were both cut short by a drunk driver.

Ralph had a fire of strength and love that belied his age. He leaves behind hundreds of people who remember his great kindness, humor and generosity. You couldn’t go anywhere with Ralph without a fond hello from people who met him at Sweetwaters, the 99 Restaurant, his gym, ballroom dancing or St. Mike’s. Those who became his immediate family include Michelle and Anthony Tran and their children, Tiffany, Tommy, Trixie and Alexander; Kim and Greg Burbo and their son, Joshua; Tove Ohlander and Rich Arentzen and their children, Nea, Niels and Enya; Kit O’Connor and Nate Orshan; and nephews and nieces Ross and Ward Atwood, Susan Cardoza, Karen Adams and Janis Young. Ralph was predeceased by his sisters, Annie Adams and Margaret Atwood; and his wife, Edith. The family includes many of his devoted caregivers, including Federica Murgia, the staff at the Pines, the Arbors, TLC and the UVM Medical Center.

We love you, Ralph. Thank you for the friendship and for being part of our family. You deserve to rest. We’ll hold down the fort for you on Earth, and you keep watch for us in “That Great Bottle in the Sky.”

In keeping with his love of science and education, Ralph donated his body to UVM medical school.

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