Terry Backer Soundkeeper August 3, 1964-December 14, 2014
On behalf of Terry’s family, friends, colleagues, and to everyone he touched in his much too brief time on this earth, I want to say farewell. Terry loved life but understood that our time in this world is finite. In one of our several conversations over the last few months, Terry told me this, “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.” But leave it, and us, he has, and it has left a huge hole where his oversized presence once was.
I don’t how to begin to grieve. John Gunther, writing about the death of his son from a brain tumor in Death Be Not Proud, said:
My grief, I find, is not desolation or rebellion at universal law or deity. I find grief to be much simpler and sadder… All the things he loved tear at my heart because he is no longer here on earth to enjoy them. All the things he loved.
I read somewhere that “Every man dies – Not every man really lives.” Terry lived! He lived, and he shared the stories of his life: about the Sound, about being a waterman lobstering with his dad, about being a woodsman in the Pacific northwest, about hitchhiking across the country, about his love for his family and its robust history, about his community, his constituents, his colleagues in the legislature, about being the Soundkeeper, about the founding of the Waterkeeper movement, about the people around the globe whose lives he touched.
Terry was a big man. When I first met him, and before I got to know him, my impression was only of physical strength. That impression served him well in negotiating on behalf of his beloved Sound. But Terry also had a big heart, and a bigger intellect. He was gentle and a gentleman. He was smart in so many ways. He knew history, literature, art, and science; he was worldly and yet his focus was local; he was a politician in the true sense of the word, regarding citizens or matters of state. He wrote and helped to pass landmark legislation; he went to court on behalf of, and to give a voice to, those on the Sound; he reached out to Waterkeepers around the world, and to friends, not just in Connecticut, but throughout his beloved America, an America whose future, about which he was very worried, and did everything he could to make sure that we stay on the right path. Terry researched and was beginning to implement innovative post-carbon technologies.
Terry never gave up on America. His legacy—which it now falls to us to implement in his honor—is to forge communities, states, nations, and, indeed, a world where care of the earth, care of people, and a “fair share” is part of our hopeful future.
Terry once gave me a tour of the Connecticut state capitol. He knew the name of everyone we met. His colleagues and staff treated him with a combination of intimacy and deference. It was obvious that he was held in the highest regard by his peers. Governor Malloy said about Terry, after learning of his death, “Terry Backer will always be remembered at the state Capitol as a larger-than-life crusader who was passionate about Stratford, unwavering in his love of Long Island Sound, and deeply dedicated to his lifelong mission to preserve the waterways for future generations. The authenticity of his advocacy was only matched by his unforgettable approach—he truly embodied his cause in the halls of the Capitol. He had profound impact on the state’s environmental and energy policies.”
The Sound was at the center of his being. Those of us in the Waterkeeper movement understand this better than most. Rick Dove, a dear friend and an imposing warrior of a Waterkeeper, said, “Terry Backer, the one and only Long Island Soundkeeper, has passed. There are no words that can adequately describe the depth of this loss. Terry will always be remembered for his awesome contribution to Long Island Sound, but even more than that, for all that he did to help build the world’s greatest environmental water protection organization, the Waterkeeper Alliance. Rest in peace dear friend, inspired by your work, we will follow in your footsteps and remember you always as the greatest of Waterkeepers.”
Terry as usual had the last word. Just a little while ago, speaking about the Sound and Soundkeeper, he told an interviewer, “It’s been a labor of love. It was the catalyst for a global movement that affects millions of people. You know what? I can now say if I end up at the golden gates, pearly gates—whatever they might be—if I was asked, ‘Did you have a useful life?’ I’d be able to say I did the best I can, and it was useful enough because it engaged all these people into helping the environment.”
Everyone has “a first time I met Terry story.” Here is mine: My friendship with Terry goes back to 1989, when I was an aspiring Baykeeper, longing to bring the model that John Cronin, Mike Herz, Cynthia Poten, and Terry had passionately crafted to my home waters, the bays and rivers of New York Harbor. Terry never answered my phone calls or letters, so one day I just went to see him. I knocked on the door of his office above the oyster house and said, “I want to be the Baykeeper.” He got up, flexed his shoulders and crossed his weight lifter’s arms, and in that gravelly voice of his said, “You showed up, that and persistence is 90 percent of this job. You passed the first test. Now let’s see what we can do to get you started.”
He was imposing. Before he got to know Terry and the rest of us “graybeards,” Bruce Resnick, another Waterkeeper friend and colleague, once called Terry, Joe Payne, and me the “Popeye Waterkeepers.” We took it as a compliment. Bruce and a lot of the second generation of Waterkeepers soon learned that an imposing appearance is incredibly useful for Waterkeeping.
Terry served as a Waterkeeper Alliance Board member from 1999 until his death. From that first board meeting around an outdoor table in eastern Long Island, John Cronin, Bobby Kennedy, and the rest of a small group of founders created a vision. Terry saw Waterkeeper grow from less than twenty to almost 280 independent Waterkeepers on six continents.
Terry was the primary ambassador and mentor to new programs. He traveled internationally, and gave his cell phone number to any Keeper who asked, told them to call any time–and he answered their calls. At our yearly gatherings, he was constantly speaking with any of the new—and some not so new—Waterkeepers who sought his advice. More than any of the rest of us, Terry embodied everything a Waterkeeper might aspire to.
Somehow I always wound up speaking right after Terry at Waterkeeper gatherings, and always had to start by saying, “What a hard act to follow.” Terry was an impossible act to follow. Some people come into our lives and leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never ever the same. Terry will always be in my heart.
Terry and I had different spiritual belief systems, but I know that his conviction that God exists gave him comfort, and typical of Terry, not so much comfort for himself, but to assure his friends and family that he is part of a larger plan, that his spirit has gone home.
I hope that in his next life he is at peace, that there is no pain, that he is at the helm of a well found vessel, on a heading to a safe harbor, with clean water, oysters and lobsters, gardens, orchards, forests, and a place for rest.
Farewell Terry, goodbye my friend, I wish you fair tides and a wind at your back, God speed. Thank you, Terry, for giving us so much. I love you and miss you, my brother.