Dave Belcher has a rock steady demeanor for a man who constantly seeks change.
The demeanor has helped him weather a lot of life’s rigors. His desire to change and to improve himself and his world has made The Trustees of Reservations’ refuge on Chappaquiddick one of the most beautiful natural experiences on earth.
Mr. Belcher will retire as its superintendent in May and move to Florida after nearly 20 years of stewardship. The Island will lose a precious natural resource when he does.
In addition to his Trustees work, Mr. Belcher has been a high-quality basket maker for more than 25 years. And has quietly spent many years rehabilitating feral Island cats, lost or abandoned by visitors. He sits in his office with a feline reclamation project stretched across his lap and talks about his life and work.
“When I came here it was like being dropped on the moon,” he says of starting work at the Cape Pogue Wildlife Refuge. “Not that I didn’t know the Island, but I was a cop — I didn’t have a clue. There was no one to tell me what to do, even what the property boundaries were.
“So I pretty much did the things that I should do,” he recalls.
Doing what he should do is a trademark Belcher trait. After graduation from Weymouth (Mass.) High School in 1968, Mr. Belcher did not become a hippie but started an auto repair business and married Cathie, his high school sweetheart. They have been together for 42 years, including a few harrowing ones. His relationship with Cathie seems the accomplishment of which he is most proud.
Mr. Belcher has been a bed and breakfast operator, basket weaver, service station mogul (he owned two), and a police officer.
“I was running a B& B on Nantucket, where Cathie and I had gone for a slower lifestyle I had promised her,” he says, explaining the veers in his career. “I was running a B& B, working at a local garage, and I got to know the local cops. An opening came up, I got the job, and a week later they gave me a gun and a badge and I was a cop on the street.” A year later, Mr. Belcher attended the police academy for formal training.
The Trustees job represents nearly half of Mr. Belcher’s working life. Is it the body of work he’ll most remember? “I’m proud of what I did here, but I felt the same way about being a cop and everything I’ve done. As long as I can make a difference somehow, I’m happy in the work.”
Mr. Belcher learned about The Trustees in 1989 through a friendship with a superintendent there who encouraged him to apply for the Island job. Six months later he became the third superintendent at the Cape Pogue Wildlife Refuge, following the legendary Forrest Silva and Bob Fountain.
“When I got here, my job was to keep law and order and sell permits from my truck on the beach,” Mr. Belcher says. “They let me hire a part-time summer assistant. We took over the lighthouse in the early 1990s and opened it to tours. We spent a lot of money and time rebuilding it. We put new roads and boardwalk on Cape Pogue. Later came guard shacks and portable toilets and wells for drinking water. I wanted to make the property more user-friendly, and the ideas evolved from that,” he says.
In 2006, The Trustees added Leland (Norton Point) Beach in Katama to the land management rolls. Today about 840 acres, 14 miles of walking trails and more than 11 miles of beach between South Beach and Cape Pogue comprise the property. About 30 staffers maintain the refuge. Mr. Belcher cites contruction of a four-mile boardwalk from Dike Bridge and a visitor center as projects he’d loved to have completed.
But on Dec. 14, 1995, witnesses to a car accident on route 27 in Falmouth would have bet against the completion of any more of Mr. Belcher’s Trustees work. A tractor-trailer came around a curve and drove over the Belcher car, crushing it. Cathie Belcher suffered serious injuries and Mr. Belcher’s injuries were immense. His upper body was crushed.
The accident triggered an amazing series of events. The accident in Falmouth was witnessed by a former Belcher neighbor in Dover who alerted a friend, Dr. Thomas Thornhill, a Brigham and Women’s Hospital orthopedic surgeon who in turn alerted his colleague, Chappaquiddick’s Dr. Joe Murray, chief of plastic surgery at Brigham’s. Essentially, the two men began the Belchers’ treatment plan before the couple had left the accident. “They flew me and Cathie to Brigham and Women’s, even put us in the same room together, a no-no in those days. Joe thought it would help my recovery if I could see Cathie and knew she had made it. It did help. She could give me orders from the other bed,” he laughs.
But that was later. “They didn’t expect me to live or be in any good shape,” he says of the long rehabilitation journey for him and his wife. “Bob Fountain, who was superintendent before me and has become a good friend over the years, tells the story of talking his way in to visit me,” Mr. Belcher says. Mr. Fountain told him, “‘You were a bunch of hoses and pipes. I just turned around and left. You wouldn’t have known I was there anyway’,” Mr. Belcher recalls.
“A lot people did a lot of good things for us. My sister in law, attorney Kathy Ham, worked out a power of attorney to handle my household and business affairs. Paul Schultz took care of my care, taking business. We were both in wheelchairs and my church built a wheelchair ramp at our house. People delivered food to our door constantly,” he says.
The experience has made the Belchers savor life each day, though it did not end Mr. Belcher’s fascination with a seven day work week.
He’s working with urgency this winter. “Hopefully I’ll get all the staff hired, finish budgets for 2009, and get the permits and T-shirts in place so when the new person starts, they can focus on learning the property and the staff and run the business. Then I’m headed for Florida and Ponce Inlet near Daytona Beach,” he says.
Unfortunately it’s about 65 miles from Disney World and Mickey Mouse, an essential part of Belcher life. Asked about his obsession with Disney and his mouse, Mr. Belcher laughs. “It’s more my wife’s obsession with Mickey Mouse. She wants to work at The Magic Kingdom. I think what she really wants is to be Mickey Mouse. That won’t happen right now because Cathie is now in Florida taking care of her mother. We were planning on retiring probably in one more year, but she retired last September from Edgartown library and went to Florida to care for her mother,” he says.
Fast forward to Memorial Day weekend 2008 in Florida. What’s the plan? “I don’t know. I’m not going down there with a plan. I’ll probably spend the first few months getting used to where I am and working on my house, but I’m sure I’ll be looking for a job.”
As luck would have it, the Ponce Inlet lighthouse, wildlife refuge, a museum and wildlife rehabilitation center are steps from Mr. Belcher’s residence. He can reel off facts and figures related to all of it.
Despite the evidence of his Trustees accomplishments, Mr. Belcher says with complete sincerity, “my only drawback is that I have no education, no college degree. I’ll have to convince someone to give me a chance. The problem will be getting through the door. If I can get through the door then maybe I can go further. Hopefully I’ll find something and be able to make a difference.”
Here’s a hint: just send the pictures, Dave.