STRATFORD, Conn. — Farmers as well as town and state officials converged on Stratford Community Farm on Wednesday, taking time out from a picture-perfect day to officially christen the site after one of its main champions — the late Long Island Soundkeeper and longtime state representative Terry Backer.
“We all knew him as a man of the sea, but he ended up not only being a person of the sea, but also a farmer,” said Mayor John Harkins, who helped unveil the sign marking the 90+ community plots after Backer, who passed away last December after a long bout with brain cancer.
Kaye Backer of Norwalk, mother of the 12-term Democrat, said she was honored to see his memory live on at the Terry Backer Community Farm of Stratford.
“He was a wonderful person,” she said. “He was a very modest person, too. This is beautiful.”
Long-known for his homespun charm, Backer, who was 61 when he died, wasn’t always as enamored with the Sound as some might think, his mom said.
His father, a fisherman himself, took him out on a fishing expedition at the tender age of 3 and, after trying his hand at the sport, the little boy got bored and threw his pole into the water.
“My husband said, ‘I don’t mind losing the pole so much, but I would have liked to keep the reel,’” Kaye Backer said, with a laugh.
Despite the early incident, Terry Backer’s love for the water grew over the years and he later earned a license as a Merchant Marine officer from the U.S. Coast Guard. He worked with his father, Henry, for decades, harvesting lobster and shellfish in southwestern Long Island Sound.
He led the Soundkeeper Fund for 27 years, joining the environmental work of fellow activists including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., senior attorney and president of the board of Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit focused on grass-roots efforts to protect and enhance waterways around the world.
Backer was the former chairman of the legislative Environment Committee, as well as the Energy & Technology Committee. He was first elected to the state House of Representatives for Stratford’s 121st District in 1992, representing the South End of Stratford, including the Lordship neighborhood where he lived. He won re-election in 2010, 2012 and 2014 while fighting a brain tumor.
He was so beloved that Gov. Dannel Malloy ordered Connecticut flags lowered to half-staff to mark his passing.
The former Pirhala Farms, a bucolic site in town for more than 50 years, the community farm boasts more than 90 plots for area residents and more than 90 fruit trees, said state Rep. Joe Gresko, a longtime friend of Backer’s who won his seat in a special election.
“I promised him I’d keep this going,” he said of the farm. “I’ll never be the environmentalist he was. If I’m half as good, I’ll be happy.”