MAKING A DIFFERENCE Thomas Roberts, at 75; inspired lighthouse preservation efforts
Thomas Roberts, a banker whose efforts to save the black-and-white-striped Fire Island Lighthouse in the early 1980s became a model for scores of lighthouse preservation campaigns around the country and yielded a popular tourist destination, died June 10 at his home in Bay Shore, N.Y. He was 75.
The cause was colon cancer, said his son, Thomas Roberts IV.
Roberts, who had grown up in the heyday of fishermen and clammers on Long Island’s South Shore, was a mortgage banker and suburban weekend boater when the Coast Guard announced plans to save money by knocking down the 121-year-old lighthouse in 1979.
The Fire Island Light, as it is called — a 170-foot tower on the western end of the barrier island — had sent its beam across a 20-mile arc of the Atlantic, waving off vessels from its ship-littered shoals from 1858 to 1974, when its lantern was dismantled.
It was one of dozens of lighthouses the government planned to demolish, a link in a necklace of shoreline beacons once considered essential to the nation’s trade and commerce. The government plan prompted Roberts to write an essay, published by Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, in which he argued for the lighthouses’ preservation, emphasizing their importance in U.S. maritime history.
From scores of neighbors and people who sent letters to the newspaper agreeing with him, Roberts recruited the founding membership of the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society.
The society, established in 1982, raised money through concerts, fashion shows, 5-mile runs, clambakes and black-tie dinners. Children collected aluminum cans on the beach and sent in a check for $186. Liz Claiborne, the fashion designer, and her husband, Arthur Ortenberg, pulled in substantial corporate donations and then matched the donors’ gifts.
The $1.2 million raised in the society’s first four years paid for repairs to the lighthouse, the conversion of the lighthouse-keeper’s cottage into a visitors’ center, and the rekindling of the old lighthouse beacon.
Roberts and his group also reached an agreement with the National Park Service in 1996, giving them rights to operate the lighthouse as a self-supporting maritime museum.
The agreement became the model for provisions in the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, governing similar lighthouse reclamation efforts. The Fire Island Lighthouse, which has been open to the public since the late 1980s, now draws 200,000 visitors a year, according to the preservation society.
“This was not the first, but it was certainly one of the earliest and most successful efforts of its kind, a model for how it could be done,” said Jess Gales, executive director of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, a nonprofit group that has helped save nearly 100 lighthouses since 1984.
“Mr. Roberts was very influential in lighthouse preservation, and in a very New York way,” he added. “He and his people, they just didn’t take no for an answer.”
Thomas Franklin Roberts III was born on May 11, 1938, to Thomas Roberts II and Irene Roberts in Bay Shore, where his father owned a real estate brokerage. After attending Bay Shore High School, where he was a golfing champion, Roberts graduated from Wake Forest University in North Carolina and received a master’s degree in business from Brown University. He became executive vice president of Seamen’s Bank for Savings, served as president of the Mortgage Bankers Association of New York, and in the mid-1980s formed his own real estate finance firm.
Roberts helped raise more than $5 million for the preservation society before illness slowed him in recent years. His most triumphant moment came on a balmy May night in 1986, when he pulled the ceremonial switch that turned on the lighthouse beacon after it had been dark for 12 years.
Thousands of people attended the event. Smithsonian magazine wrote that hundreds of boats offshore were crammed with spectators. When the first beam of light swept over the surface of the water, the magazine said, many of them cried.
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