Rep. Terry Backer dies at 61

State Rep. Terry Backer, an environmental champion most known for his love for and protection of Long Island Sound, died late Monday night in Bridgeport Hospital. He was 61.

The veteran Democratic lawmaker and Soundkeeper died at Bridgeport Hospital at about 11:20 p.m., said his spokesman and friend Joe Gresko.

Backer was first elected to state office in 1992 and he was in the midst of his 12th term representing Stratford in the General Assembly. Backer represented the south end of Stratford in the state legislature, including Lordship, where he lived.

Terry Backer was born in Stamford on Aug. 3, 1954. He attended Norwalk public schools and later earned a license as a merchant marine officer from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Backer worked with his father, Henry, a longtime fisherman, for decades harvesting lobsters and shellfish in Long Island Sound.

Backer later took the lead as the first Long Island Soundkeeper in the 1980s after he and local lobstermen and fishermen were successful in getting a settlement with polluters. The group had help from then-Hudson Riverkeeper John Cronin and Riverkeeper attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Backer had been battling brain cancer since 2010. While he was able to treat it successfully, it was discovered again last August, Gresko said. The illness kept Backer from attending a special session of the General Assembly.

Gresko found out about Backer’s death shortly after Gresko began his term as the 5th District town councilman.

Gresko said Backer was a man who was “always going.”

“He was very much a larger-than-life character. He was like a ball full of energy, always going and always doing,” Gresko said. “He didn’t like being sick at all or the appearance of weakness.”

Before the start of the new Town Council's first meeting, Gresko asked residents to offer thoughts and prayers for Backer, as his condition had worsened.

Mayor John Harkins, who served with Backer in the state legislature for 13 years, saluted Backer as a “tireless advocate for our community.” Harkins ordered flags be lowered to half staff in honor of Backer.

“His passion for the environment, particularly for the preservation of Long Island Sound and the community garden at Pirhala Farm, was obvious and sincere,” Harkins said. “It was my distinct privilege to have had the chance to know him and to serve with him in the legislature. Stratford has lost a part of its fabric, and Terry will be sorely missed.”

Gov. Dannel Malloy ordered state flags to be flown at half-staff in honor of Backer. Malloy also spoke kindly of Backer in recognizing his service and love for Stratford and state waterways.

“Terry Backer will always be remembered at the state Capitol as a larger-than-life crusader who was passionate about Stratford, unwavering in his love of Long Island Sound, and deeply dedicated to his lifelong mission to preserve the waterways for future generations,” Malloy said. “The authenticity of his advocacy was only matched by his unforgettable approach — he truly embodied his cause in the halls of the Capitol. He had profound impact on the state’s environmental and energy policies. The state of Connecticut will forever remember him as the Keeper of the Sound.”

Beth Daponte, the new Town Council chairwoman, worked on Backer’s last re-election campaign last year. Daponte said it was an honor to have known Backer.

“He never seemed to stray from what he thought his mission was,” Daponte said.

Rick Marcone, the town’s Democratic registrar of voters and Backer’s friend of 10 years, said he had never met anyone as dedicated to doing what was right for the community.

“He was an advocate for all that was good. The hours spent on the Sound would not be as good without him,” Marcone said. “He tried to make sure we were well represented in Hartford and that Stratford got its fair share of the pie. We always knew we had a good friend in Hartford.”

Stratford Democratic Town Committee Chairman Len Petruccelli said Backer could get along with anyone as he worked with Democrats and Republicans for the betterment of Stratford and helped the town secure state grants to improve the town.

Rep. Laura Hoydick, a Republican who also represents Stratford in the state House of Representatives, said she and Backer had their disagreements in Hartford, but always had a healthy respect for one another and they became closer as Backer became more ill.

Hoydick remembered an event in Hartford last year when other Soundkeepers from all over the world called in to salute Backer for his work.

“He’s done so much not only just for the state of Connecticut but the nation in terms of water purity and quality,” she said.

Hoydick also remembered Backer for being “a real guy” who was always true to himself.

“I admired that he worked so hard for the waterfront working folks. He was a steward. He knew the environment was ours to utilize and ours to protect,” she said.

“He was a great legislator and was a great person,” Petruccelli said. “He's going to be missed.”

Funeral services for Backer will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Matthew’s Church in Norwalk. Calling hours will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Hoyt-Cognetta Funeral Home and Crematory in Norwalk.