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Kite Master flying high with new book

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Dying art: Eugene O’Connor hopes his new book, The Art of Kite Making, will inspire a younger generation to look to the skies (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

To Eugene O’Connor, there’s nothing better than the buzz of a Bermuda kite.

He calls himself the Kite Master, because he’s been making and selling them for 76 years.

These days, the skies have grown a little too quiet for his taste.

“If I’m driving down the road and hear a kite humming, I stop the car and get out to figure out where it is,” the 83-year-old said.

“The skies used to be filled with kites on Good Friday morning. Today, there just aren’t as many. People still want them, they just don’t know how to make them. It’s definitely a dying art.”

Mr O’Connor is sharing his knowledge in book form. The Art of Kite Making is on shelves now.

It contains detailed instructions and photos he has taken of kites over the years.

“I wanted to write my own book when another Bermuda kite-making book came out in 1970,” he said. “Over the years, I kept saying I was going to do it but I put it off.

“Then we tried to get someone else to do it. We’d give them some money, and then a better job would come along for them.

“Finally, three years ago, my son, Eugene Jr, said he was going to do it himself. He helped with the writing and my daughter-in-law, Juliette, took photographs.”

Mr O’Connor was thrilled when he finally held a copy in his hands.

“A lot of work went into it,” he said. “At first the book was a lot longer, but we cut it a lot. We have enough material to do a second book. I am really proud of it, particularly because it is a family affair.”

That’s the way his kite-making has always been.

When his children — Eugene, Sherrie and Dennie — were little, they would wind string and do other small tasks.

Meanwhile, he would make the frames and his younger brother, Calvin, would paste paper.

As demand grew, he streamlined the process by creating a mould.

“It got to the point where I could make a frame in three minutes,” he said. “The papering took a lot longer, maybe three hours.”

He still makes kites in a workshop under his house in Pembroke.

“I built the room myself,” he said. “I’ve always been good with my hands. In fact, I’ve built three houses in my life.”

He and his brother started making kites for the Phoenix Stores when they were 14 and 13.

“At one point, we were making 400 to 500 kites to sell there,” Mr O’Connor said.

His brother retired from the business 15 years ago.

“I made 200 frames for the Phoenix Store last year,” he said. “I haven’t started making them for this year yet. I will, soon.”

Completing his first kite at 7 was a proud moment.

“At first, I made them for fun, using fennel sticks and pond weed that I found in Marsh Folly Dump,” he said.

He couldn’t afford to buy paper, so he’d use wrappings from crates of apples and oranges.

“They were pretty coloured sheets,” he said. “They came in all different patterns. I’d find the paper and iron it out.

“Then I started using wood from the crates instead of sticks. Then an elderly lady asked if I’d make her two.”

She paid him six pence, a princely sum for a child in 1945.

“That was a lot of candy money for me,” he said.

Word of his skill spread and his customers increased. His price rose to nine pence, and then to a shilling per kite.

As he grew older, he decided on a different career path.

“It’s hard to believe now but over the years Bermuda had 29 movie theatres,” said Mr O’Connor, whose work there spanned 44 years.

“Aeolian Hall, Playhouse, The Colonial Opera House — I was chief engineer in them all.

“It was a great job because while the film was rolling I could string kites. I left when Rosebank Theatre closed in 1984.”

He has often demonstrated his kite-making skills on cruise ships docked in Hamilton and showcased it overseas.

“It’s hard to take the kites away because they get damaged so easily,” he said.

Two years, ago, Bermuda National Trust gave him an award for his work in keeping his craft alive.

“That was a proud moment,” he said. To show off his love for kites, he often wears a large gold one around his neck.

“After the theatres, I worked in trash collection for Works and Engineering for 15 years,” he said. “We would often find old rings, chains or watches in the garbage. I amassed quite a collection.”

In 2014, he took his collection to a jeweller. They sold the gold and had three kite necklaces made up from the proceeds.

“I really love my necklaces,” Mr O’Connor said.

Eugene O’Connor will sign copies of The Art of Kite Making on Saturday at Brown & Co, from 12pm to 3pm

The Kite King, Eugene O’Connor (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)
The Kite King, Eugene O’Connor (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)