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Tributes to Priscilla Pratt

This page is devoted to memories of Priscilla Pratt and tributes to her inspired leadership of GOSA, which ended with her death June 15, 2009. The first three pieces are by GOSA directors. The fourth is by John Wirzbicki, a former Groton Town Council member who writes the CTBlueBlog.

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Joan Smith

It was a sad day, but a beautiful day, the day Priscilla left us. We will miss her terribly. Yet we know she had a good life right up to the very end. She led a well-examined life, blessed by good friends and family, and she was committed to the welfare of animals and the environment. Love of Priscilla now keeps us going.

Priscilla led the GOSA cabal (as my husband calls it) in a quiet, thoughtful and dignified manner. Neighbors may have wondered what was going on in the Pratt-Wright Gallery, where we met, but we knew about GOSA’s efforts to protect the environment, sensitive lands, habitats and waters. Priscilla and GOSA helped to protect Haley Farm, Bluff Point, 57 new Haley Farm acres, and The Merritt Family Forest, more than 1,100 acres in all. Priscilla’s tenure as president covered GOSA’s incorporation as a nonprofit and GOSA’s twenty-two year program of mowing Haley Farm’s fields.

Because of Priscilla, we know we are not alone. Her legacy is the backbone and quiet confidence we need to follow our convictions, to deal with challenges and to speak clearly and effectively. She is within us and still corrects our spelling. She makes sure that we are careful in what we say and that we show restraint and respect for others. She sees that we do not back down in the face of intimidation, but that we can also accept correction and learn to do better. Anyone who mistook her small size and quiet manner for timidity, at their peril, learned otherwise. We can only emulate her sharp mind.

Love of nature brought us together. Once upon a time, Frank Williams invited me to a board meeting, where I met Priscilla, Charlie and the rest of the cabal. The topic of discussion was logging at the Mortimer Wright Preserve, and I immediately knew this was the right group for me. Haley Farm attracted me to the area, and here was the group that had saved it! I was hooked.

Priscilla, Edith Fairgrieve and I began spending full days, in the time before we had computers, typing statements, correcting spelling, and researching science — speaking in what seemed to be a lonely voice for the environment. And then the community responded in spades. Engineers taught us how to read a site plan, land trustees gave us language, and biologists, educators and experts in birds, botany, amphibians, water, shellfish, saltwater marshes, nitrogen and turtles joined the fray. Even lawyers, many pro bono, lined up one behind the other, like a train sitting in the gallery, to teach us how to intervene, appeal and negotiate hard. Neighbors, friends and local businesses gave generously to our fundraising campaigns.

Everyone respected Priscilla, especially our adversaries. Those of us who knew her loved her best. Let us hope there is a little bit of Priscilla in each of us: she took time to know individuals; she mentored and encouraged us, and let each person develop and contribute his particular talent. She spoke kindly and clearly, and had an uncanny eye for detail and a firm grasp of complex issues. By example, she helped us all become better people, and she gave us hope for the future of our planet. What a great and inspirational woman she was!– Eulogy June 27, 2009 .

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Jim Furlong

Priscilla Pratt, president of the Groton Open Space Association, worked to the end for GOSA and future generations.

Days before she died June 15, Priscilla dictated incisive emails, watched a pertinent town council meeting on television, and used her legendarily sharp eye to catch typos in a GOSA poster.

Priscilla had led GOSA with significant success since the mid-1980s after making big contributions in the 60s and 70s to saving Haley Farm and Bluff Point. Under her presidency, GOSA added to public open space, worked to mitigate development impacts, and championed better rules for land-use commissions. GOSA promoted the town open space bond issue in 1988. These activities have been explained elsewhere. So here are a few things about the woman and the way she led and inspired people.

She was an accomplished sculptor and a former church organist. She wrote moving poetry. She felt deep sympathy with abused and abandoned pets and worked to improve the Groton animal pound. People learned about these things slowly — from others.

Priscilla had spiritual connection with the land and wildlife. When she spoke of beautiful landscapes under threat of destruction or animals displaced from their habitats, both love and distress could be heard in her voice. When it was pointed out to her in 2003 that a legal fight for the 75-acre Merritt property on Fort Hill would last a long time, she never thought of quitting the struggle. “My generation won’t be here much longer, but that land will be here forever,” she said.

Priscilla could communicate her faith in her causes, and she found experts in law, engineering and biology to work for GOSA, often for reduced or no monetary compensation. “Priscilla thinks I should sacrifice my first-born for GOSA,” one lawyer complained humorously.

Meetings of GOSA directors took place at the Pratt-Wright Gallery in Noank amid paintings and under the gaze of Priscilla’s head sculptures. Priscilla spoke softly and never more than needed but with an authority that compelled close attention. The authority sprang from clear thinking, reasoned judgment, humor, firm principles, and fast, reliable recall of facts. Always courteous and gracious, she allowed thorough discussion of issues. Only when talk meandered badly did she lift her gavel. She tapped the air before actually rapping wood for order.

On occasion, other directors would worry about the money we were spending on lawyers and experts. She would describe in detail how much good we had wrung from each dollar and how inappropriate it would be for a non-profit to get financially comfortable. She felt that if we were spending money wisely on doing the right thing, other people would pitch in.

Outside the gallery, Priscilla dealt with a torrent of incoming communications. Her email was vast, but the red wooden mailbox that sat on her Noank front lawn remained a major hub. GOSA members — walking, biking or driving — stopped by 75 Front Street frequently to lift the crimson lid and pick up or leave behind bulky documents. No Cold War espionage drop could have seen more action. Her writings were factually and stylistically meticulous; GOSA’s credibility was at stake. She imposed high standards on others, too. She was one of the sharpest editors I ever worked with. And none had her tact in pointing out errors.

This too-short appreciation ends with a story about Priscilla told by Sidney Van Zandt, a GOSA director and long-time comrade at arms. Around mid-June, Sidney was about to mount a trail map poster at Haley Farm State Park. She says:

“I went over [to her house] about dinner time, when I thought she would be awake. I was told to stay only 10 minutes as she’d had a rough day.  She was thrilled to see the poster, but instead of then dismissing it and having conversation, she had me bring it closer, and she proceeded to read every word.  Because her bed was next to the wall, I had to move things around a bit for her to read the right side of the map, where she found two typos. She said some whiteout could correct one of the errors, and  suggested a dark pen to add that second ‘l’ to ‘shellfish.’ We then talked a few minutes more. I gave her a hug and then left… That was Friday afternoon, June 12 at 6 pm. She died three days later.”– A condensed version of this article appeared in the Avalonia Land Conservancy Fall 2009 newsletter.


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Sidney Van Zandt

We have lost a great warrior.

Priscilla Wright Pratt has been in the thick of things since the mid 1960’s. Along with Sandy Meech and his organization “ROAR” that did battle to keep the airport from being turned into a Jetport-adjunct to Kennedy airport by filling in the marshes to expand the runways. Priscilla’s brother Mortimer Wright took on the change of zone application into Duplex housing of the Haley Farm formerly the source of milk for the area.

Many of us cut our teeth on that battle. Belton Copp was our pro bono lawyer, and for the first time ever, the Commission turned it down. Mort later was elected State Representative from this area and was responsible for forming the Bluff Point Advisory Council to come up with its highest and best use that so many of us were part of.

Once the Haley Farm was clear of duplex housing, it was still ripe for development. So Priscilla and Charlie Pratt and I then joined forces to see what we could do to “Save the Haley Farm.” Priscilla contacted State officials and convinced them in her quiet way that the land needed to be preserved and that we would try to raise local funds if they would do the rest. This lady was determined and they learned for the first of the many times they would be in contact with her in the years to come, that she meant it. People came from all over the region, and The Groton Open Space Assoc. was born with a full board of Directors. We picked a name that would take us beyond this first project. Little did we know what lay ahead. It was Priscilla that then found John Hibbard of the CT Forest and Park Assoc., a well renowned statewide conservation organization. He spoke at one of our first meetings, and they offered to serve as the umbrella organization for our fund raising.

The drive began with Priscilla, with an English degree from Connecticut College, and Charlie, the architectural-photographer who put together this beautiful booklet that was sent out across the state promoting this purchase. I should say here that Priscilla has a way with words that over the years has produced letters and statements that have so very clearly and eloquently promoted the cause she believed in and gave thanks to those that helped us.

In 1970 after three years of fund raising efforts the Haley Farm became a State Park, but the developer had withdrawn the upper 50 acres that abutted Fitch High School for a separate development. Priscilla was determined to attach that portion with the lower section of Haley Farm. She reactivated GOSA into a non-profit corporation in order to receive from the Ct. Forest and Park the funds they were holding for us that were the excess raised in the initial effort. The interest earned was used to hire Stonington farmer, Tom Crowley and sons to cut the 18 years of reverting fields and vine covered walls. That has continued on for the past 23 years.

The upper 50 plus 7 acre effort went on for 32 years with development proposals of up to 95 units. She was in regular contact with both the developer and the State, and when the developer confided that the family of the next generation were wearing thin, she then passed that information to the State and within a short time the land was purchased and saved in 2002.

Before 2000 GOSA was concerned with a massive development at the top of Fort Hill of 79 units criss-crossed with many roads over land covered with many streams, vernal pools, steep slopes, and it was all going to end up in Eccleston Brook that feeds into Palmer Cove bordering the Haley Farm. Gosa proposed a plan calling for fewer units with much less stormwater runoff. Experts were hired to support these views before commissions. Once again Priscilla was quietly in contact with the owner, Nelson Merritt, and the State DEP to monitor the possible future of this land. When the developer’s option lapsed, she was there putting the pieces together as she had with the Haley Farm over 30 years before. GOSA signed with the Merritts, received a grant from the State DEP, but it took another 5 years of battle with a new developer before he finally gave up and we were free to finish the fund raising. On May 16, 2008 the funds were raised, and Priscilla signed with Nelson Merritt, placing THE MERRITT FAMILY FOREST in GOSA’s ownership. This land is the Keystone to the Greenbelt from the West side of Groton to the East.

Those are just a few of the highlights of her accomplishments. There are many other sides of this mild-mannered lady. She was an accomplished sculptor, and she played the piano and organ, and she wrote poetry.

CAN ONE PERSON MAKE A DIFFERENCE?!!!! Never is that more true than with Priscilla Pratt. Look at this map of Groton. Haley Farm, Bluff Point, The Merritt Family Forest, all there for ALL THE GENERATIONS THAT FOLLOW!

I invite you to go to the Haley Farm, even if it is to just stand inside the gate. Listen to the birds, gaze at the wild flowers, and become enriched by the works of Priscilla Wright Pratt and the organization that she helped to form. And use her as a guiding light so that all of us can make a difference in whatever directions our passions lead us.– Eulogy

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John Wirzbicki

Over the course of the last 40 years or so great chunks of Groton have been preserved for posterity as Open Space. Lots of folks were involved in the various efforts to preserve the many parcels that have been saved, but one person was central to them all.

Groton owes a huge debt of gratitude to Priscilla Pratt, who has quietly but determinedly led the efforts of the Groton Open Space Association (or its forebears) for those 40 odd years. Priscilla would set out to preserve a threatened property, and against all odds, she would succeed, time and again. Many a developer left Groton in frustration, having seen a proposal die the death of a thousand cuts at Priscilla’s hands.

Never daunted, never deterred, often unfairly derided, as soon as she saved one piece she set her sights on another.

Last night at the Town Committee meeting Andy Maynard told us that Priscilla died recently. Many people in Groton don’t know her name, but each and every one has been benefitted by her work. Not too many people have had the quiet impact that Priscilla has had on her community. She leaves behind many hundreds of acres of preserved space as her memorial. During her life she deflected attempts to honor her for her work; now that she’s gone it is certainly fitting that one of the properties she saved be named in her honor.

Below are some pictures of Haley Farm State Park and some of its inhabitants, the first property that Priscilla saved, which would, if not for her and her brother, Mort Wright, now be filled with Coast Guard housing.

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