Chaplin Bradford Barnes, a lawyer, conservationist and historian whose love of Westerly — in particular, his beloved village of Watch Hill, where he spent every summer of his life — earned him a Gubernatorial Citation from Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee, an appointment as the first Distinguished Senior Fellow of the University of Rhode Island Coastal Institute and accolades from the Watch Hill Fire District, the Westerly Town Council and the Watch Hill Chapel Society, died Saturday at his home in Westerly. He was 73 and had been dealing with cancer for the last year and a half.
“It’s a terrific loss,” said Edith B. Eglin of Watch Hill, who enjoyed a 65-year friendship with Barnes and served with him on the board of trustees of the Watch Hill Chapel Society. “We all knew it was coming and we were so pleased to get another year with him... it’s a loss.”
Eglin said that Barnes lived by a lofty set of principles, had profound knowledge and was an invaluable asset to the community.
“He was valiant to the finish,” she said, “and he lived out a life of service to the organizations he loved. His love of Watch Hill was unmatched.”
Barnes, who told the Sun in a 2013 interview that his proudest accomplishments were “Promoting the preservation of the environment; writing ‘Watch Hill through Time’; being named to the town of Westerly’s Comprehensive Plan Citizens Advisory Committee and Architectural Review Board; and receiving the 2009 Citizens Service Award from the Watch Hill Fire District,” was born in New Haven, attended the Choate School, graduated from Yale College and Yale Law School and studied international law at Oxford.
In 1965, he wrote his law school thesis on a new legal device created to protect land: the conservation easement. His interest led him to his work with the National Audubon Society, a number of federal agencies — he was a senior adviser for international affairs for the President’s Council on Environmental Quality — and the Piedmont Conservation Council, a regional land trust/conservation organization in Virginia, where he served as president.
He was also a member of the Conference on the Long-Term Worldwide Biological Consequences of Nuclear War, which included astrophysicist Carl Sagan and a roster of internationally renowned biologists, physicists and climatologists who studied the consequences of “nuclear winter.” In 1985 Barnes returned to Watch Hill, the place he loved most, to practice law. Soon after he helped found the Watch Hill Conservancy.
Judith Swift, director of the Coastal Institute at URI, said Barnes, who also founded the innovative Napatree Investigators youth education program, which allows hundreds of children to learn about the ecology of the Napatree ecosystem each summer, knew “that the best long-term insurance to protect the natural resources of the area is to educate the youngsters — tomorrow’s citizens and leaders — to the beauty and wonder of the Napatree environment.”
Frederick B. Whittemore, president and chairman of the board of directors of The Watch Hill Conservancy, said “He helped so many people and so many organizations.” Barnes helped found the conservancy and served as its executive director until 2013. “Look what he’s done for the Watch Hill Lighthouse and for the preservation of Napatree Point and for conservation,” Whittemore said.
Barnes was instrumental in the protection and stewardship of the Napatree Point Conservation Area. Napatree, one of Rhode Island’s most pristine beach ecosystems, is a biodiversity hotspot for shorebirds and a destination for tens of thousands of visitors year round.
Ann Snowden Johnson, president of The Watch Hill Lighthouse Keepers Association’s board of directors, said she has known Barnes her whole life and called him “a mentor, a leader and a friend” who exemplified the philosophy of stewardship and community.
“When you love a place, part of your responsibility is to give back,” she said. “Chap did that.”
Last March, the documentary, “Watch Hill: Portrait of a New England Seaside Village,” based on his book “Watch Hill Through Time, the Evolution of a New England Shore Community,” made its debut on Rhode Island Public Television featuring Barnes as the video’s primary narrator. The video was part of the station’s spring membership promotion and is scheduled to be a centerpiece of the channel’s fall membership promotion.
Betty-Jo Cugini Greene of Westerly, who wrote and produced the documentary, spoke of Barnes’ passion for sharing the history of Watch Hill and Napatree.
“It was such an honor for us to be able to bring his book to life, especially for the next generation,” said Greene, who worked with Jim Karpeichik of Ocean State Video on the production of the video.
“That’s really what Chap wanted to do,” she said, “he wanted people to know about the rich history of Watch Hill so they would know what Watch Hill was all about.”
Peter J. Brockmann, a member of The Watch Hill Conservancy’s board of directors, said Barnes has left “some pretty big shoes to fill.”
Calling Barnes a role model and a “true gentleman,” Brockmann said Barnes inspired the next generation to “keep that interest and momentum going.”
“I’m sorry he didn’t get to see the completion of the underground utility project, but at least he got to see Napatree protected,” he said. He was referring to the burying of lines strung on utility poles along Bay Street.
Sharon Ahern, who now serves as the conservancy’s executive director, said Barnes had the ability to articulate problems and situations in a way people could understand and support, and to bring people together from all across the community.
“There was very much a facility and graciousness he brought to every endeavor,” she said. “And he also had a tremendous sense of humor. Just laugh-out-loud funny.”
“He was also an inspiration,” added Ahern. “He celebrated every moment... every last moment.”
Former Westerly Town Manager Steven Hartford, who is in line to become the governor’s director of administration, said “there was perhaps no one in the last generation who contributed more to the study and preservation of our local culture and heritage than Chap Barnes.”
“He was a good friend to me and always encouraged me and supported me in my work in local government,” said Hartford.
State Sen. Dennis L. Algiere said, “He was a gentleman who cared deeply for the entire community. He was working until the very end.” Algiere worked with Barnes on a number of environmental issues over the years.
Barnes’ daughter, Sarah Chaplin Barnes, said she was in awe of her father’s legacy and of the community that allowed him to do the work he so loved.
“I am beyond grateful that the conservancy gave him the opportunity to do what he did,” she said. “When you think about it, how many people get to do that...do the work they love with the people they love.”
She also said that her father was particularly happy when the tradition of Evensong returned to the Watch Hill Chapel.
“It was the last service he attended there,” she said. “He was so pleased the tradition was coming back.”
Chuck Royce and his wife, Deborah, who restored the Ocean House and Weekapaug Inn, noted in a statement Barnes’ shared interest in conservation measures.
“Chap Barnes was a singular force for conservation in Westerly as well as a talented historian who beautifully told the story of our region,” the Royces said. “Though we will greatly miss him, we are grateful to him for the work he has done and the legacy he has left us.”
Barnes had an abiding love for the ocean and for swimming in the waters off East Beach.
He would often be seen in the late afternoons, walking down Everett Avenue, dropping his towel in the sand and diving into the Atlantic Ocean during the spring, summer and fall.
“I told him last fall that he’d be swimming again next summer,” said Eglin. Chap Barnes made it into the ocean a few weeks back, she said, for one last ocean swim.
A memorial service will take place at the Watch Hill Chapel on Saturday, July 26, at 10 a.m.