Barbara Caroline Burak, 93

Fri, 01/23/2015 - 2:00pm
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Barbara Caroline Burak, longtime resident of Block Island, Rhode Island, passed peacefully in her home on Jan. 14, 2015, with her loving daughter by her side. She was 93.

She was born in Manhattan on Aug. 31, 1921 to Thomas Harrison Wilkinson and Ethel (Matey) Keith Wilkinson (nee Wilson). At age four, with the death of her father and the exigencies of the Depression, she was sent to Hope Farm Home, a school for children (later Greer School) until the age of 16. It was on this 500-acre wooded campus, near Millbrook, N.Y., where they churned their own butter and grew their own vegetables, that she developed her taste for the country life, her appreciation of nature and her passion for trees. 

When she returned to New York City at age 16, having taught herself to play the piano at Hope Farm, she entered the High School of Music and Art to complete her formal education. By 1939, she made her first visit to Block Island with her mother, brother Tom and sister Jean. They visited throughout World War II, staying at Uncle Weeden’s Homestead and the A & A Tea Room. After the war, Barbara married Sasha William Burak (b. Jan. 18, 1922, d. Aug. 18, 1973), also of Manhattan. Throughout her marriage to Sasha, who rose to Deputy Chief in the New York City Fire Department, Barbara spent her time raising her two daughters and pursuing her interests in needlecrafts, wood finishing and piano. Despite the houseplants gracing every available window, her green thumb was definitely circumscribed by the modest garden apartment in Queens, N.Y. where the family resided. Also during this time, the family continued to make summer visits to the island. 

After Sasha’s death, Barbara retired to Block Island in 1975. Here she did the finish work on the house she had designed, cleared her land and started planting her gardens. Eventually, she would have over 200 plant specimens, including numerous varieties of evergreen and deciduous trees, flowering trees, fruit and nut trees and flowering shrubs. It was to be her private paradise. 

By the late 1970s the deer herd had begun to explode and the devastation to her newly planted landscape was significant. Wanting to change the course of events, she accepted the position of Conservation Committee Chair, which she held from the late 70s through the mid-1980s. During this period, she worked tirelessly to resolve the deer problem. She was in constant communication with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) Division of Fish and Wildlife to work out some solution acceptable to the Town, whether it be a permit program or a controlled shoot. She was in communication with the Harvard and Yale Schools of Public Health regarding the implications of the deer tick and lyme disease. She co-authored the 1989 BIRA Lyme Disease and Deer Report with some other concerned citizens. She did an inordinate amount of research, reviewing existing Rhode Island regulations and solutions adopted by other communities facing similar issues. She compiled a summary history of 27 years of Town Council meeting minutes on the deer problem, covering 1963 - 1990. The retired Chief of Fish and Wildlife considers this a critical historical document that played a significant role in the eventual codification of the existing permit system into state law. Unfortunately, her efforts at altering the course of events with respect to controlling the deer herd in time were not successful — the Island was not yet ready for a solution. This is perhaps one of her most notable disappointments. 

As committee chair, her conservation work involved far more than the deer problem. She facilitated the work of Fish and Wildlife during their annual colonial nesting bird counts by opening her house to them. She researched the geology of wetlands and the environmental impact of not protecting them. She was instrumental in initiating the island's process to obtain the Department of Environmental Management designation of sole source aquifer. With such a designation, the island’s Conservation Ordinance could be updated, giving it the legal authority to expand the wetlands protection zone beyond that of the state jurisdiction, thereby protecting the aquifer, the island’s water supply and its ecosystems. It would lay the groundwork for the town to subsequently require the installation of waste water management systems to further that protection. 

When building permit applications were received by the Wetlands Program at DEM, she provided the background information necessary to facilitate their inspections. When potentially unauthorized activities or development appeared to be taking place, she immediately notified the Wetlands Program, again with the ancillary information required for their inspections.  She was unflinching in her commitment to fulfill this role of watchdog, despite the often negative personal reactions to her efforts. Nonetheless, they resulted in numerous violations being caught in the early stages, greatly mitigating the process of correction. She worked closely with Arthur Rose in these efforts as well. 

Her work as Conservation Chair was keenly focused on maintaining the general health of the Island’s natural resources and for this she was awarded the first Block Island Bayberry Wreath Award in 1984. 

Subsequent town work included serving briefly on the Planning Board from December 1986 through January 1988 during the rewrite of the Comprehensive Plan that, from her point of view, was only partly successful. It increased the residential zoning requirement for new lots to three acres; her goal had been four. They did however, adopt the very significant regulation that any new building lot have a certain percentage of “developable” land in order to be developed. 

She was passionate about protecting the Island’s resources, staunchly principled in her stance to do so, and yet a rather private person with a fun loving sense of humour. She was a deeply loving mother and a best friend to this writer. She will be dearly missed. 

She is survived by her daughters Dora Burak of Block Island, R.I. and Nancy Burak of Winchester, Virginia; grandchildren Monique Massey and husband Michael of Gainesville, Virginia; Rinaldo Campana and wife Delma of Woodbridge, Virginia; great-great grandchildren, Rachel and Trey Massey of Gainesville, Virginia and Devon Zimmerman of Fredericksburg, Virginia; niece Monica Adams-Acton of East Sussex, England and nephew Lionel Adams-Acton of New South Wales, Australia and their spouses, children and grandchildren.

An informal gathering to celebrate Barbara’s life will be held at Kimberly’s Restaurant on Block Island on Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015 from 3 p.m. - 5 p.m. All are welcome. 

Donations in her memory should be made to the Block Island Conservancy, P.O. Box 84, Block Island, R.I. 02807. 

I would like to thank Mike Lapisky, retired Chief of the Division of Fish and Wildlife at R.I. DEM for his input on Barbara’s deer work; Jim Meyers, retired Principal Wildlife Biologist at the Division of Fish and Wildlife, for his input on her help with the colonial nesting bird counts; Marty Wencek, Supervising Environmental Scientist at DEM, for his input on her help with wetlands work; Martha Ball of Block Island, longtime council and committee member, for her input on Barbara’s Planning Board work and The Block Island Times for providing a copy of the 1984 Bayberry Wreath Award article. Any misstatements of fact are entirely unintentional and the responsibility of the author. — Dora Burak