The Block Island Times

Barbara MacMullan: This year's Bayberry Wreath honoree

By P.S. Wood | Mar 25, 2014
Photo by: K. Curtis

Searching for metaphors can be a fool’s errand — or a poet’s — or that of a simple scrivener having fun. How about this, then, appropriate to an island 12 miles at sea? Among the human flotsam and jetsam that chance has tossed onto our shores, there have been many treasures, none more timely, more welcome and more unlikely than Barbara MacMullan, manager of the Washington Trust Company’s Block Island Branch and this year’s recipient of our Bayberry Wreath Award.

We say unlikely because Barbara’s contribution to the island over the past several decades has been primarily in spheres not ordinarily associated with banking. Energy and conservation are the fields in which she has more visibly toiled on the island’s behalf — though with both, as it is for all social issues, money in the end figures large.

So, while behind the scenes she as been quietly able to lend the weight of finance to social needs — arranging mortgages for affordable housing applicants, or talking the Washington Trust into sponsoring an annual beach clean-up — it’s been her long service on the Land Trust (16 years a trustee, chair for six years) and the Electrical Utilities Task Group (EUTG — seven years) that have been most evident. Here is how it all began.

Barbara A. MacMullan, second of four sisters in an Irish Catholic family, started life in 1956 in New Jersey. When she was in seventh grade two themes appear, the threads of which can be traced through the rest of her life: energy and the sea. Her father, who worked for Exxon, was transferred to Venezuela, where her family’s house overlooked a giant, seaside oil refinery. From a high bluff, she was able to watch huge oil tankers come and go. Unlike today, it was a time of calm and political stability for Venezuela, with oil prices high and the government in reasonable hands. Remembering it fondly, Barbara speaks of such pleasures as netting blue crabs of the sort found in the Chesapeake Bay. The anomaly of their presence in the tropics did not escape her. They had arrived, as larvae, in ballast discharged from tankers before taking on oil destined for Chesapeake ports.

When time came for college, not surprisingly Barbara chose to study marine biology, thus the University of Rhode Island. There followed a bachelor’s degree in natural resources, with a concentration in urban affairs (remember that), and then a master’s in economics. After graduation, Barbara would join a major environmental consulting firm, headquartered in New York City. She would work there for the next 16 years, rising to the position of senior consultant.

It was during her undergraduate years that she first discovered Block Island. For many summers thereafter, she and her family would come for vacations, renting Dodie Sorensen’s house on Harbor Pond. “My father was a sailor,” she says, “and he could bring his dinghy right up to Dodie’s dock behind the house. We didn’t even need a car.”

And it was on one of those vacations that Barbara met Henry duPont, year-round resident and, as some would have it, unstoppable force of nature. At the time, Henry, in rooms on the second floor of the building across the parking lot from the Block Island Grocery, was running Offshore Services. It was a do-it-all operation that performed computer work, billing and accounting for island businesses. On one of her vacations, Barbara had brought work with her that needed to be faxed back to her New York Office. And, as she explains, “Henry, being Henry, read my stuff and found that I, like he, was interested in renewable energy.” On a hill next to his house on the West Side, Henry had already erected his own wind generator and was contracting for others around the island. Soon the environmental consultant was helping him with the finances for his proposals.

“At the time I didn’t know anything about wind energy,” she said. “That’s how we got together,’ she remembers, “talking about energy supply.”

Now let us compress time somewhat as well as events, such as the founding of Goose and Garden — Barbara’s idea for combining a nursery that was missing on the island with Henry’s untidy gaggle of geese. Another attracting element for Barbara must have been Henry’s strong involvement with the Committee for the Great Salt Pond, which he chaired for many years.

They eventually married. The year was 1995, and for several years after that Barbara continued her work for National Economic Research Associates, commuting for two or three days a week to the city. But family life marched inexorably on. And by the time their daughter, Isabel, was two, New York became a bridge too far. A timely solution presented itself when the Washington Trust Company needed a new branch manager. Knowing nothing about banking, but, as one of her sisters told her, “you understand numbers and know how to handle people. They can teach you the rest.” She applied, was hired, and with that decision Block Island acquired another year round resident whose special background, training and unflappable temperament would uniquely fit the struggles ahead.

And how did she like the change?

“Well, it’s not as challenging as being a consultant in New York City. Not, perhaps, as exciting. But I really like living here. And working here. The people are wonderful, and it’s a really great bank,” she said.

Still, one wonders about the diminished challenge. One needn’t. In 1998, Barbara was tapped by the Town Council to fill a vacated seat on the Land Trust. And almost before she could settle in she was having to judge such issues as the suitability of drilling water wells on Land Trust property. Repeatedly elected after that, she has quietly and effectively helped guide Trust decisions ever since, assuming the chair six years ago.

Then, in the late 1990s the island’s electrical costs hit a bump.

As Barbara explains, the Block Island Power Company had swapped out their diesels without getting permission from the Public Utilities Commission. As a consequence, they lost their grandfathered status and were forced to meet the country’s highest standards for emissions. The Town Council, recognizing an increasingly tough economic future, wondered if they should try to buy the company, or at least see to it that the owners, since it was their error rather than the rate payers, foot the bill for the emissions upgrade. To help them, the council, energized by two new members, Ray Torrey and Peter Baute, sought advice from islanders, year-round and seasonal, who were familiar with energy concerns. Barbara was an obvious choice for the group that the council saddled with the cumbersome title of the Energy Utilities Task Group.

How did that challenge for the EUTG work out, we asked her?

“It took us the better part of a year to make our assessment of what the company was worth, but BIPCo differed with our figures, and the negotiation broke down.” And what about the town’s effort to allocate the added costs to the owners? “Oh, we lost,” she said, allowing a tone of resignation to color her answer.

Membership of the EUTG has shifted a little since then, but Barbara has ridden the energy wave all the way to the contentious Deepwater Wind project. When asked about Barbara, Everett Shorey, a management consultant with a summer house on the Neck, called her “one of the smartest people I know. Her depth of knowledge is huge; her common sense terrific. I couldn’t have asked for a better colleague.” All of which, for the purpose of this tribute buttresses our decision to duck the issue, other than to report that she believes, like the rest of us, we must do something. A standalone cable would be best, though how to get it is a debate for another day.

It is now nearly 14 years since Barbara took up her station in the small office to one side of the main banking room on Ocean Avenue. There, seated behind a desk and computer on weekdays during banking hours she can usually be found with the door wide open — open to people and ideas.

Claire Costello, who served for years with Barbara on the Land Trust, recognizing all that, points as well to what, for no better word could best be called her humanity. Examples are her dedication to St. Ann’s-by-the-Sea, where she serves on the Bishop’s Committee and her contribution to the advisory board of the Block Island School. Besides that, Costello, familiar with the house that Henry built “off the grid,” with it’s wind generator and coal furnace, notes that while Henry is off on the other side of the world setting up a wind generator somewhere, “Barbara stokes the furnace, feeds the geese, and wonders if she can vacuum when the wind is light.”

We recently visited Henry and Barbara in their home off Beacon Hill Road while Henry was busy packing for a business trip. He was headed to Necker Island in the Caribbean to help install a system of wind and solar energy to replace the diesels that presently power Sir Richard Branson’s exclusive island resort. It was a clear, cold and sunny afternoon. As we talked, their own 10KW generator whooshed gently in the background. The view from the post-and-beam house (built in 1983) is high, wide and distant, reaching west across the waters of the Block Island Sound. Cradled in the immediate foreground, in stark contrast to the coal bin and assorted detritus — a couple of old lawn mowers and a broken shopping cart — rested Henry’s sleek Olympic class, 28-foot Soling racing sloop, its high-tech needle bow poking out from under a tarp.

Beyond it, lower down were the twin wings of the Goose and Garden greenhouses. Their curved roofs dominated the view’s foreground, just about where a 14 year old girl in Venezuela many years ago might have confronted an Exxon oil refinery. While over the water, beyond the horizon, an observer could imagine the towers of New York City, brick and mortar symbols of the ‘urban affairs” that would become Barbara’s academic concentration at URI, and in microcosm would concern her here.

Look for such symbols and they are not hard to find, those metaphors that bespeak change, reminders of challenges that face, not just Necker, Block Island and other small islands, but the whole wide world. The dynamic push and pull between progress and conservation. Between wind generators out in the water and an unblemished seascape. Between affordable housing and open space. Between science and religion.

On this west-facing Block Island hillside where fate has led her, our Bayberry laureate seems to have found her niche.


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