For Backer, Long Island Sound a top priority

Genius. Advocate. Friend.

Terry Backer, son of a fisherman and longtime state lawmaker, will be remembered as all three for making the health and safety of Long Island Sound a top priority and helping to bring Connecticut’s most famous body of water back to life.

Backer, a 12-term state representative, died on Monday after a lengthy battle with brain cancer.

Backer will most be remembered for his advocacy to protect Long Island Sound, especially during his tenure as the Long Island Soundkeeper.

Friend to the fisherman

Norman Bloom, owner of Norman Bloom and Son Copps Island Oysters in Norwalk, said it will be difficult not hearing from his lifelong friend anymore. The two became close friends as children in Norwalk, and Bloom worked on a lobster boat with Backer’s father, Henry, after Bloom’s father passed away.

“Not having Terry, it’s going to be real hard. I called him every day and talked to him. If it was about issues on the Sound and issues up in Hartford, I would call him,” Bloom said.

Bloom said he remembers Backer as someone who communicated well with the fishermen who relied on clean water in the Sound and legislators and others he spoke with. Bloom also remembered his friend for saying what needed to be said.

“He knew the importance of having a healthy Sound. We owe him a lot for what he did for Long Island Sound,” he said. “Those are some tough shoes to fill.”

Ed Popadic, co-owner of Pepe’s Cream of the Crop, a local shellfish farm, admired Backer for his work to make the Sound a better place than 20 years ago.

“He said, ‘Long Island Sound is not a garbage dump,’ and that’s where his heart was,” said Popadic, who runs Cream of the Crop with his wife, Laurie. “He made an impact. He made a statement. He made a difference.”

Popadic also admired Backer’s fight against brain cancer, saying, “He put up one hell of a battle.”

'Genius' communicator

Jason Garnett, the program administrator for Soundkeeper Inc., announced Backer's death on the Soundkeeper website. As of now, nothing will change with how Soundkeeper operates, but the organization has lost its biggest champion. Garnett said he’s lost “a friend and an inspiration.”

“Terry was a guiding light to this environmental non-profit and worked tirelessly throughout his life to raise awareness and take action to protect the Sound that he loved. He will be missed by so many, and the Soundkeeper organization will continue in his honor to make further progress toward our founding mission of protecting and preserving the Sound,” Garnett said. “Our expanded pumpout program, legal actions to prevent pollution and protect marine life, habitat restoration and projects to promote stormwater management and educational outreach will continue toward the goal of preserving a swimmable and fishable Sound.”

Tom Andersen, communications director for the Connecticut Audubon Society, said he met Backer as the future lawmaker in the late 1980s as he was just starting as the Soundkeeper. Andersen said the Sound was “dying” as advocacy for the water body was in its infancy.

Andersen hailed Backer as a “genius” in making the health of the Sound important to different groups.

“Terry was a genius in summing up the issues in a way that was compelling to the press and also to environmentalists, commercial fishermen, and union members — three factions that didn’t necessarily speak the same language,” said Andersen, author of This Fine Piece of Water, an environmental history of the Sound. “In fact, he helped calm a protest by union members at a Long Island Sound conference in Westchester County in 1992. I don’t know if there would have been a Long Island Sound cleanup if Terry had not been part of the movement. And I don’t know who can replace him.”

Unflinching advocate 

Sen. Kevin Kelly, who also represents Stratford, called Backer a “longtime public servant and friend” who fought for years to protect Long Island Sound.

“Through his many years representing Stratford in the Connecticut General Assembly, Terry fought tirelessly to protect our Long Island Sound,” Kelly said. “From helping to pass environmental legislation to raising money to protect the Sound he held so dear, Terry was a statesman and made our town proud. His passing is such a loss to our region, our state and our neighborhood.”

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy also offered kind words for Backer. The junior senator said he would “fight a little harder” for state waterways because he knew Backer and wouldn’t want to disappoint him.

Murphy added that Backer “made everyone around him understand that Connecticut’s economy and its cultural character were intimately tied to the health of Long Island Sound and the rivers and streams that flow into it. In large part because of Terry’s urging, Connecticut set upon an aggressive course of cleaning up the sewage treatment plants that allowed dirty water to flow into the Sound. Today, the water in and around our state is cleaner than ever — few beaches are closed every year and fish are returning to rivers that were barren of life for decades.”

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal recalled Backer as a vanguard for the Sound.

“Terry Backer was one of a kind — a fearless fighter for Long Island Sound, an effervescent raconteur and a warm and deeply generous friend. Terry had a big heart — a relentless love for everything that exists and lives on the planet and a tireless devotion to public service and the people of Stratford and Connecticut,” Blumenthal said. “I will remember him and his legacy in the beauty of the Sound.”