Remembering Sally W. Richards: April 26, 2011 Memorial
By Joel Helander
As for many of you, Sally Richards was a powerful force in my life.
And as odd as this may sound, I may not have met her had it not been for the tragic fire on Faulkner’s Island in Long Island Sound.
The date was March 15, 1976.
Perhaps you remember it.
When a plume of gray smoke rose ever the island and the large, dwelling house was consumed by flames.
It was a sad loss of a historic landmark.
I yearned to visit the site to make a photo documentation and spoke to the local fire marshal about a collaboration with him. You see, within a few days, there was already debate and mystery about the cause of fire.
To our surprise and disappointment, the Captain of the U.S. Coast Guard Command, in New Haven, would not allow an island visit.
Somebody suggested that I call Sally Richards, which I thought was a wild card, but I did. And it worked. The USCG gave Sally permission to bring me to the island within a few days of the fire!
Thanks to Sally and Fred, my mission was accomplished.
As the consummate blue water sailor & boater, Sally loved the sea and everything in it. Salt water must have coursed through her veins. Given her upbringing on the coast of Maine, plus her chosen profession as marine biologist, it was natural that she always owned boats and pursued boats and boating with vigor.
Sally & Fred were members of the local Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla and owned a large, 38-foot Maine Lobster boat.
Their power boat, 38 feet in length, carried the name of Ammondytes, a species of salt water fish subject to Sally’s research. In my mind, the boat was equipped as fully as any Coast Guard search & rescue vessel that I ever saw, with state-of the art navigation equipment, powerful lights, lifeboat, etc.
Before the fire department had its own marine rescue boat, Sally’s vessel was the first line vessel for marine rescue in Guilford and neighbor towns. On more than one occasion, I can see Sally and Fred now, in their yellow turn-out gear and black boots, pulling into the Town Marina basin in Ammondytes to network with the fire department for a search and rescue operation. It was sheer wonderment to me that they would enter the jaws of Long Island Sound, sometimes at night and in foul weather, to assist our volunteer fire department.
Faulkner’s Island always loomed large in Sally’s life. After the fire of 1976, and after the island light station was largely dismantled by the U.S. Coast Guard, it became a research station for the study of terns. The Falkner Island Tern Project, known by its acronym, FITP, was in part a subsidy of Sally Richards’ magnanimity.
As a scientist, Sally believed in research at every level. Faulkner’s Island became a research station for Dr. Spendelow who came up from Laurel, Maryland every summer, like clockwork, to study the island’s nesting tern population. Sally’s in-home marine laboratory at Little Harbor became an adjunct for that project. She had high school/college students on her payroll to assist Dr. Spendelow. She supplied equipment and provisions for the project. She allowed overnight use of her home, and she provided safe boating courses for the FITP staff.
To promote safety, Sally established a radio communications system between her lab and the island. Truly, she became the right arm of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
There’s no doubt about it, when a citizens group known as Faulkner’s Light Brigade was founded to devise a ways and means of saving Faulkner’s Island from inevitable destruction by erosion, the influence of Sally Richards was pivotal.
Who else but Sally Richards could engineer a meeting with a U.S. Senator such as Joe Lieberman to meet in her home to plant seeds for such a formidable project? She fanned the Senator’s interest and he moved a grass roots preservation effort to the halls of congress for substantial funding.
Who else but Sally Richards would personally fund and establish a research project under the direction of George Gdovin to document erosion rates of an island and perform topographic mapping? She took this project, better known as the Faulkner’s Island Research Project, a step further by encouraging George to pursue his master’s thesis on the subject at Antioch University.
And who else but Sally Richards would chair the Town of Guilford’s Restoration Committee for Faulkner’s Island Lighthouse; this, in collaboration with Faulkner’s Light Brigade.
There were so many complex dimensions to Sally Richards life that it is impossible to do her full justice in these few remarks, Suffice it to say, she was an influential person in many people’s lives.
Sally Richards embraced all that was good. Sally Richards practiced benevolence and philanthropy. It spread in quiet and boundless ways. If she believed in a cause, she embraced it and boosted it, both with her time and financial backing.
Much of her giving was done anonymously, such as a donation to Yale University so that the Guilford Land Trust could acquire the 57-acre preserve now called Nut Plains Woods, or for start-up seed money for a fledgling organization.
Reports of Sally’s philanthropy are now coming in, such as financing a young person’s college education, financing a friend’s trip to Russia to attend a workshop in massage therapy, or financing the reconstruction of a colleague’s home destroyed by fire.
Thank you, Sally. Thank you for caring and contributing for so many causes for the benefit of so many people in so many ways.
Like your direct ancestor, Reverend Henry Whitfield, who sheparded his flock in Guilford, you did the same.
Out beyond the breakwater of Little Harbor, into the waters of Long Island Sound, over the friendly beacon of Faulkner’s Island, and into the reaches of the open Atlantic, may you find an eternal sunrise after the sunset.