Huntington man has close-up memories of new president

Bob Cline, of Huntington, stands with a model he built several years ago of the Trump Princess, a lavish yacht once owned by Donald Trump. Cline got to meet the future United States president and spend time aboard the yacht, which he counts among the highlights of a long and fruitful career in model-making.
Bob Cline, of Huntington, stands with a model he built several years ago of the Trump Princess, a lavish yacht once owned by Donald Trump. Cline got to meet the future United States president and spend time aboard the yacht, which he counts among the highlights of a long and fruitful career in model-making. Photo by Steve Clark.

Originally published Feb. 16, 2016.

Bob Cline remembers Donald Trump having a strong handshake.

It was June of 1989. Cline was in Atlantic City, NJ, staying at Trump’s Castle, an opulent hotel owned by the real estate mogul.

Cline had been invited to the hotel by the senior vice president of Trump’s organization, J. Jeffrey Walker. The two had struck up a correspondence via letters after Cline, a model ship builder from Huntington, had expressed interest in making Trump’s lavish yacht, the Trump Princess, his next project.

Walker’s response, in November of 1988, to Cline’s initial inquiry contained pictures and detailed plans of the 282-foot vessel, which enabled Cline to get a start on his model.

Always a stickler for detail, however, Cline reached out to Walker again in January, requesting additional information that would help him capture the ship’s nuances. Walker did Cline one better: He informed him that the Trump Princess would be porting in Atlantic City that summer and that a tour could be arranged. Cline jumped at the opportunity.

It was during his three-day stay at Trump’s Castle that Cline got to meet Trump himself. After receiving that memorably firm handshake, Cline chatted with Trump about his yacht, which he’d purchased from the sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, in 1987 for $29 million. As the conversation wrapped up, Trump promised Cline that Walker would get him whatever he needed.

True to his word, Walker delivered on the tour of the Trump Princess. The tour was guided by the ship’s captain and saw Cline snap pictures from beginning to end, chronicling all the details he sought to render on his model. Cline did take a moment, though, to have his wife, who accompanied him on the trip, photograph him sitting behind Trump’s desk, with a smile on his face.

Today, that picture and all the others from that trip are located in a scrapbook dedicated to Cline’s Trump Princess model. It’s not the only scrapbook he has; Cline has others equally brimming with pictures of all the boats and airplanes he built over the course of a long modeling career.

Cline, 91, says he started building models in his youth.

“When I was 8 years old, I went into Barnhart’s Bookstore; it used to be down on Market Street,” he shares. “They had model airplanes hanging up. I said I’d like to build one and they said, ‘There’s going to be a guy at Hier’s Park, Saturday morning, he’ll show you how to build it.’

“So, I bought a 10-cent Comet kit and a nickel’s worth of glue and that’s when I started building airplanes.”

Cline built models throughout his childhood, stopping when he got into high school. During his senior year, he enlisted in the United States military and went on to serve in the Navy during World War II.

Cline was stationed aboard the USS Kennebago, a replenishment oiler, where he bore witness to one of the war’s pivotal events.

“We were just off Japan when they dropped the atomic bomb,” he recollects. “We thought it was a storm – and then they told us.”

Cline served from 1943 to 1946. When he came home, he rediscovered his love for modeling and crafted airplanes for several years. Eventually, he got into building radio-controlled airplanes, though he struggled flying them. He remembers lamenting this fact to one of his peers at a modeling competition in Toledo.

“I was over there talking to a fellow and I told him I kept carrying them home in a paper sack,” says Cline of his crashed airplanes. “And he said, ‘Why don’t you start building boats?’

“So, I did. Four years later, after I won over in Toledo a couple times, he said, ‘I created a monster.’”

Cline started building boats in 1973. His first model was of the USS Missouri, famous for being the site where Japan surrendered to the Allies, signaling the end of World War II. Cline also built a model of the Kennebago, which he made a habit of bringing with him to reunions with old shipmates.

Cline says he selected his modeling projects based on how challenging they would be. Given that approach, it’s not surprising that he would eventually tackle building one of the most famous ships of all time, the Titanic.

Aside from constructing the ship and capturing its many details, Cline imbued the model, which was remote-controlled, with an audio-visual component.

“When I’d get out in the water, then I’d play the ragtime music back in 1912,” he explains. “So, then I had a radio-controlled iceberg… I’d run it out there and then I’d hit it with the Titanic and when I did, my tape player would hear the crash and then you could hear the people screaming and hollering and the boilers exploding and I’d pump water in the bow to start sinking and I’d sink it down to the anchors.”

When the show was finished, Cline pumped the water out of the ship and brought it back to the shore.

“That’s got over 1,000 portholes in it – and they’re really brass portholes,” says Cline of the model. “In fact, I didn’t think about the portholes when I started pumping water in it; I had to go back inside and seal them.”

One of Cline’s most frequent sources of inspiration for projects was Carnival Cruise Line. He developed a relationship with the cruise line when he showed pictures of his models to its director. The man liked what he saw and the interaction led to Cline being furnished with plans for the cruise line’s forthcoming ship, the Festivale. Cline built a model of that vessel, plus two others in the years that followed.

He was a big fan of Carnival’s method of compensation.

“I got free cruises,” he says with a smile.

Cline’s work for Carnival ended up being featured in a modeling magazine where it caught the attention of people in the entertainment industry. A crew making a commercial that was to feature a large boat contacted Cline and requested permission to rent one of his Carnival ships. Cline happily obliged. The production paid for him and his wife to go to Hollywood and he got to supervise the model’s use in the commercial.

“The director would holler, ‘Boat man!’ And I’d get to go up and turn the radars on,” says Cline.

Reflecting on his modeling career, Cline estimates he made over 100 boats and airplanes. Oftentimes, just one of those models would take a year or more to complete. To avoid tiring of working on the same model, Cline notes he usually had two projects going at the same time.

Cline had a workshop in his basement and usually worked on modeling at night, after returning home from his job at an auto body shop. He says he never encountered a problem on a project that couldn’t be solved by a good night’s sleep.

“I used to go to bed trying to figure (it out) and get up early in the morning and it’d come to me,” he says.

Cline decided to retire from model-making in the 1990s, after his wife passed away. The decline of his eyesight, he says, also factored into the decision.

Today, Cline’s models have been dispersed throughout his family, which consists of three sons and 17 great-grandchildren. Also, some of his models have homes at the Huntington County Historical Museum and the Huntington City-Township Public Library.

Currently, the model of the 48-inch Trump Princess, which took a year and a half to complete, is in the possession of one of his sons. Cline remains proud of the finished product, especially the details he was able to incorporate after his tour of the real deal. Of those details, his favorite one is that the model features teak wood decks, just like the full-size one. Teak is an exotic wood coveted in boatbuilding due to its strength and resistance to moisture.

Ultimately, while Cline may not have been able to hop in any of his boats, they took him places all the same – from Hollywood, to cruises, to a meeting with a future president of the United States.

“I’ve had a very, very interesting life,” Cline says.