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Tom Barrett says "no single institution can claim a more profound role in establishing this city's commerce and history" than the Port of Milwaukee.

Dobkin captures the "Soul of a Port"

Every Milwaukeean has a Lake Michigan story and for the next seven days OnMilwaukee will share as many as possible during "MKE Lake Week," sponsored by the Harbor District. Love our lake? You're in the right place.

As the saying goes, there are eight million stories in the naked city. Thanks to a couple series of local history books, more and more of those stories are being told.

The History Press, for example, published local writer Leah Dobkin's look at the Port of Milwaukee. "Soul of a Port: The History and Evolution of the Port of Milwaukee" was published in paperback and is available online and at local booksellers.

"I have a passion for storytelling," says Dobin, who also collects individuals' stories and "harvests their wisdom" via her Legacy Letters and Priceless Conversations project.

But her book, "Soul of a Port" – which is loaded with great photographs and has a foreword by Mayor Tom Barrett – aims to do more than simply offer a chronological history of this vital piece of Milwaukee.

Instead, she spent countless hours interviewing the folks whose lives are connected to the Port of Milwaukee and intersperses their stories with the historical record to create a lively look at the port's vibrant economic and social life.

We asked her about how the book – how it came to be and what she learned from writing it.

OnMilwaukee.com: "Soul of a Port" grew out of a magazine piece, didn't it? Can you tell us a bit about how you came to write about the port and how that transformed into a book?

Leah Dobkin: We live three blocks from Lake Michigan, yet I found myself driving inland to Iowa to pick up a dilapidated 25-foot sailboat my husband Tim bought off of eBay. Who knew there were lakes large enough in Iowa to accommodate a 25-foot sailboat? But there are.

The sailboat had tattered sails, and strapped on the back was an old nine-horsepower outboard motor, on its last propeller. Tim was determined to fix the boat and learn how to sail. He succeeded to convert a mold- and spider-infested vessel into a boat I would sail on with only slight trepidation.

More than once we found ourselves in the inner harbor with no wind and an uncooperative motor, requiring the assistance of strangers to tow us back to our mooring. Caribbean-looking water and beautiful blue skies contrasted with our red faces.

One day, both the wind and motor died, but before the boat could be rescued (once again), it gravitated towards this mammoth dock, ultimately pounding against its pilings. The dock, as it turned out, is part of the commercial Port of Milwaukee, and that, my friends, is how I became curious about the Port of Milwaukee.

I wanted to learn more about the Port, so I pitched a story idea about the Port to Milwaukee Magazine, and wrote a feature that was published in their February 2009 issue.

My cup runneth-ed over with colorful stories about the Port and the people that work there, but they all could not fit into the feature. Coincidentally the executive director and marketing director of the Port (Eric Reinelt) asked me to write a little book about the Port, perhaps 15 pages. Shortly after, The History Press contacted me about writing a book, and I pitched the idea of a partnership between the Port, The History Press and me. Everyone thought that was a great idea, so a 15-page book turned into a 143-page book.

OMC: I love that the book isn't a traditional chronological history, but more "scenes from the port," if you will. Why did you decide to take that approach?

LD: I wanted to create a unique, engaging book that reflected the human aspects of the Port; to give a voice to people that work at the Port. I believe that not many people understand the importance of the Port or how it functions. What better way to explain the inner workings of the Port than through the eyes of people who work there. I also tried to make its history come alive by emphasizing, again the human elements. I love to interview people and share their stories. There is nothing more powerful than storytelling to help educate and inspire the world.

OMC: Do you have some favorites?

LD: The politically correct answer is that they were all my favorite stories, but I have to confess that "Man Over Board," "Water Rodeo" and "The Mud Puppy" were some of my favorites. I still smile when I think of these stories.

OMC: Were there any stories that you wanted to tell but could quite get a handle on?

LD: Yes. People I interviewed were very open and honest with me. I kept their confidences when requested.

OMC: How has the port changed over the years? Is it as vibrant a place as ever?

LD: I think the Port reflects our society, and as long as our society is vibrant so shall the Port.

OMC: Do you think Milwaukeeans realize how important the port is to the economic life of the city?

LD: Not at all, and I hope this book can turn that ignorance around. I was equally ignorant.

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