‘Live while you are living. (But save for the future)’

A farewell to our treasured friend and Camden historian, Barbara F. Dyer

Mon, 02/07/2022 - 10:45am

CAMDEN — Few have loved and honored one’s hometown more steadfastly than Barbara F. Dyer, who died Feb. 2, 2022, peacefully at the Sussman House, the community’s hospice facility in Rockport.

She was 97, and had lived fully, with enthusiasm. She left behind a legacy with her books and essays that cover centuries of local history, as well as her apt observations of Camden and its people. 

I went to visit Barbie D. two days prior to her passing, and she was sleeping comfortably, a small stuffed kitty resting beneath her cheek. Like a little girl, she seemed to be settling in for a long nap on a cold winter’s afternoon. 

She had loved her large, black-coated cat Shadow, a wily one, who would slip out of her home in Camden and get everyone worried. He never went too far from home – but enough to make trouble.

One day, Camden Fire Chief Chris Farley and firefighter Jon Heath responded to Barbie’s appeal to find Shadow. There they spotted him, close by the house, and Jon carried him indoors. Shadow was, as Barbie would say, “a real rascal,” and then she’d smile at him, curled up in his special green chair that matched his green eyes.

When word began to spread that she was in her final days, old friends quietly went to see her at Sussman. The sadness was palpable among many who had known her at various points in her long life. She was a woman who blended easily amongst all the people of Camden, tying them together with a keen eye. A common thread emerged, as family and friends told her they would take care of Camden, and carry her legacy forward.

David Dickey, himself an avid repository of Camden history, loves Camden’s stories as much as Barbie, and over the years, would visit, taking special lobster rolls to her.

“The most fun I ever had was taking her adult history classes; Jeff Weymouth, Parker Laite and Frank Leonard and I in the back and the good girls in the front,” he said. “It was a blast, so she held an extra class for anyone to tell their story.”

Barbara Dyer was a working class girl, born May 19, 1924 to Milton Earl and Elizabeth Ayoube Dyer. She was raised during the Depression and became a young adult during World War II, when Camden was 100 percent behind the war effort. 

From 1942 to 1986, she was an office manager and accountant by trade at Camden Shipbuilding, which later became Wayfarer Marine and Lyman Morse, as it went from building boats for the U.S. Navy to building large yachts. She was a Camden Select Board member, and served on many municipal and nonprofit committees. A lifelong learner, she graduated from LaSalle Extension University in 1967, and she returned to college in 2001, taking classes at the UMaine Thomaston Center.

Barbie knew all the characters, observing the harbor and the town with an eagle eye, aware of all the secrets a town like Camden carries. And there were some doozies, which every now and then, she might allude to, with a mischievous smile. While she kept her opinions to herself, she would artfully slip her assessments of her subjects into her columns, often with a sense of humor.

“She knew who was under every woodpile but was good about not saying anything,” said Dickey. “And she was a damn good selectman.”

Barbara F. Dyer was the town’s unofficial historian, an honor bestowed on her by private bank magnate Charles Cawley. A plaque on the Brewster Building near the Bagel Cafe attests to that truth. It was a title she grew into, and became, by unofficial collective community agreement, the town’s official historian.

Her mind was always attuned to historical research, from precolonial days to the 20th Century, and then into this century. Never cloistering herself into a study, she was out and about, involved in municipal affairs, and knew naturally what was important to a small New England town.

“The town meeting was always a great event in town,” she wrote, in one column, Camden in 1965. “In fact, it was discussed on the streets and around the barrel in Ayers Fish Market previous to the real meeting. A chowder was always ready for a group of men from town, who wished to gather to discuss politics plus everything else of interest about Camden. You would be surprised what they found interesting.”

“Barbara Dyer was rightfully always called the town's historian,” said Ken Gross, at the Camden Public Library’s Walsh History Center. “She published many, many articles and columns, and kept our history alive. We have 10 books on Camden history written by Barbara Dyer on the shelves of the History Center, and boxes and volumes in addition to her published works.”

She new what she was doing, as she aptly said in 2014, in talking about the publication of Who’s Who at Mountain View II.

“I love Camden and do not want its history to be forgotten,” she said, at age 90.

I first met Barbie D. as editor of the Camden Herald, in 2009. Every Monday, she would pull into the newspaper driveway in her burgundy minivan, and Carolyn Cavanaugh, the paper’s office manager, would announce: “Barbie D. is here!”

In she came, carrying folders of old photos and neatly typed sheets of paper, her regular columns about Camden history and people. She loved writing those columns as much as she loved writing her books, all 13 of them. She was a prolific writer, working regularly until just a few months ago.

And she earned many distinctions. She was named Paul Harris fellow, Rotary International, Camden, 1995; Townsperson of Year, Camden, Lincolnville, Rockport Chamber of Commerce, Camden, 1996; recipient Distinguished Personal Enrichment award, Maine Adult Education Association, 1993; and first place/weekly award, Maine Press Association, 1993.

“She came up in many a conversation with the summary, ‘Well, we should go ask Barbara Dyer.’” said Ken Gross. “She was always ready to help with questions and her memory was clear and sharp. She will be missed more than I can say, for her knowledge and her helpfulness and the place she still holds in Camden's character.”

She knew all the stories, said Gross, “not only the ones from the history books and the ones from the newspapers, but the family stories and from working at the harbor for so many years, and from living in Camden and living so much of the history herself.”

Barbara's father and his mother's father both worked for the same family on Chestnut Street.

“They both told me about those golden summer days, when the highlight of the day was to walk into town, get an ice cream, watch them fire the evening gun at the Yacht Club, and then walk home again,” said Gross.

As she got older, the more adventurous and carefree she seemed to become. In 2011, a bright blue Saab convertible appeared around town. It was a beautiful car, and Barbie, at age 89, had purchased it, trading in the minivan for a sportier ride. We admired that purchase, although some of the sterner ones in town shook their heads, “what is Barbie Dyer doing with that much car?” 

It didn’t matter. She loved it, even more than she loved her red Rambler that she got in the 1960s, or the Corvair she wrote about in My automobiles, Corvair convertible, red Rambler, blue Saab, and 22 more.

She had no use for “old lady’s cars,” as she faced her aging years. But, at the same time, she became more reflective about aging. In one of her 2020 columns, just as the pandemic began to rage, she wrote poignantly about getting older, observing how complicated and overwrought we have become with computations, information and data. All that she managed to say while writing simply about a tangled skein of yarn. She was a gifted thinker and writer.

In her work, she also explored personal history that reflected American history. Stories about growing up and about her own family, like Aunt Mary Christmas, who immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1800s from Lebanon after her husband was killed in Beirut by the Turkish people: “as the Middle Eastern people were all at war with each other back then in the late 1800s. She had to make a living, so she came to America, ‘where the streets were paved with gold,’ and was not just a ‘great’ aunt, but unique in many ways.”

Mary Ellen Chase wrote about her, too, in Mary Christmas, published it in April 1926 by Little, Brown and Company. Mary Christmas was a traveling saleswoman of remarkable fortitude, who, “was thin because she walked so many miles each day with her sack of wares over her shoulder,” wrote Barbie. She was saving most of her money to send for her son, who had remained in Syria. Eventually, she became a store owner in Camden.

That enterprising spirit and gumption passed down to Barbara Dyer, who never slowed down. She even has a tugboat named after her. The Barbie D, was built in the mid-1950s by yacht builders at Camden Shipbuilding Company, Inc.

“The same ships' joiners and craftsmen built the Barbie D with the same perfection as they did the yachts,” she wrote. “All boats are named and the workmen requested the little tug be named for their girl office manager. The Barbie D has since carried out many tasks, towing vessels many times larger than the tug herself, to and from mooring constantly, whether inner harbor or outer harbor. Whenever hurricane warnings came, she brought all the vessels to safe harbor, as well as those that the shipyard stored and did the maintenance on.

Her niece, Elizabeth Moran, said, “she always told me that they named the tug the Barbie D. because she and the tug were the ‘old workhorses’ of the shipyard.”

Today, Lyman Morse is steward of the Barbie D., and according to Mackenzie Lyman, the tug remains in service to the boatyard, and the town.

Barbara F. Dyer was a friend, a teacher and a mentor. She could tell you tidbits of lore on just about everybody who has walked the local streets — or at least about their families and neighborhoods.

John Long, himself a local historian, and looked to Barbie D., as a friend, and a collegial resource, “who never hesitated to help anyone.”

“She would look up things for you, and was somebody wonderful to chat with,” he said. “She is irreplaceable.”

Her old friend Elaine Davis, who is president of the board of Camden District Nursing, knew how important Barbara Dyer was to the community, not just an historian and volunteer, but as staunch supporter of the nonprofit that works on behalf of those who fall through the cracks of health care programs. 

Davis, a Camden High School Class of 1961 graduate, and Barbie D., a 1944 graduate of the same high school, are both part of that old network of strong Camden women who quietly keep the fabric of the town intact. They watch out for those in need, who are living on the edge, perhaps alone in their homes. They don’t make a lot of noise, but they get the work done.

“People respected her,” said Davis. “She kept us all informed through the writing she did through the Camden Herald. She’s another rung on the ladder of those of us who grew up here. If anyone wanted to know history, we all went to her.”

Richard Anderson came to know Barbie in her later years, and recollects how she and her good friend Parker Laite would fill a room.

“Barbie and Parker were totally different in demeanor,” he said. “Barbie was soft, quiet, gentle. You knew when Parker was in the room. Barbie and Parker were totally alike in their Camden pride. They both challenged me when they thought I was trying to move Mt. Battie. They both supported me when they thought they could help.

“Barbie kept the soul of Camden in our minds,” said Anderson. “Her stories based on names on the gravestones in local cemeteries gave us insights into Camden’s rich history while connecting history to last names of people we encounter today in our various organizations and businesses. Her stories of others along the way made us appreciate how the town evolved and continues to evolve.

And was savvy, a woman who made her own financial way during decades when women were expected to stay home and keep house. She was bold and persistent.

“When I started working at age 18, I began to pay my own way in life, and I can say that I planned and saved some my whole life,” she wrote. “I did have more clothes than probably were needed, but I dressed up for work. I drew plans for a home on graph paper. I built my house from paycheck to paycheck without any mortgage, but much of my own labor, and always bought a car when I had saved enough money to pay for it.

“I have no regrets (except losing my Saab convertible). It took determination and hard work but that is the blueprint, and as the saying goes: ‘Live while you are living.’ (But save for the future.)”

There is so much she knew, and retained in her head. She tried to share it all with us, and for that we thank her mightily. But we know there was even more. If only we had a little more time with Barbie D., to hear her voice, her laugh and her wry, wise spirit.

“I was fortunate to talk with Barbie last month when, filling in for my son Todd, I delivered her French and Brawn grocery order to her home,” said Anderson. “She was as pleasant and appreciative as ever. I got to say one last goodbye her final day at Sussman House. I thanked her and told her we would miss her.

If you haven’t read any Barbie D. columns, here is your chance. Listed below, and in the sidebar above, are but some of them, and represent just the past decade that PenBayPilot.com has been in existence. Barbie also wrote regular columns for the Camden Herald and VillageSoup until just recently. 

As her great-niece Heather Moran succinctly said: “Almost 100 years of knowledge of the town is passing into memory.”

Barbie always signed off her columns with “Barbara F. Dyer has lived all her life in Camden, so far.”

Now, she has lived all her life in Camden, and we have been lucky to to know her.

Reach Editorial Director Lynda Clancy at lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 207-706-6657