Judge Benjamin Lee Bird of Washington, Va. , a longtime West Tisbury seasonal resident, died of congestive heart failure at his Virginia home, Horseshoe Hollow Farm, on April 16. He was 95. A retired administrative judge on the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals, he had served before that as a lawyer in the Office of the General Counsel of the Navy.
He was born in Philadelphia, Feb. 20, 1918, a son of Benjamin N. and Anne Warren Jackson Bird . He attended the Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia, and in summers came to New England to attend Camp Tecumseh on Lake Winnepesaukee in New Hampshire. There, where campers grew their own vegetables, he developed a love of the outdoors and growing things that never left him.
He was a 1940 graduate of Harvard College, where his major was in the classics, and where a lifelong enthusiasm for words and language developed. He often said later that, odd as it may have seemed to others, his background in language study helped him as a lawyer to write legal opinions that were concise and to the point. In his speech and personal writing, he frequently but never ostentatiously quoted from the classics or from Shakespeare or the Bible. He read indefatigably, and his love of literature led him with his wife, the late Diana Washbon Bird, to start a poetry reading group in his Virginia community.
During World War II, he served as an intelligence officer in the Army Air Force in the South Pacific, an experience he always valued for the way it allowed him to make the acquaintance of so many different people. When he returned to the United States, he entered Harvard Law School, graduating in 1948. After that he married and moved to Langley, Va., but a love of nature that was as great as his love for words led him in 1967 to buy the 465-acre farm in Washington, Va., that became his winter home a little more than a decade later. He gave a large portion of the property to conservation but the rest is farmed by his son, Christopher, who over the years has raised hay and organic beef cattle there, with his father frequently driving the tractor or helping out with the haying.
The Birds first came to the Vineyard in 1960. They sublet God’s Pocket on the West Tisbury-Edgartown Road from their Virginia neighbor, the late Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, who had to cover the Democratic National Convention that summer. In no time at all, Diana Bird decided she wanted a Vineyard home of her own and announced that to her husband. So in same year, the family bought from the late Percy Burt the weathered shingled 1730 farmhouse set at an angle on Music street. (The house is so positioned, legend has it, because it was moved to its present site in a winter storm when there was ice on the hillock where it sits and it could not be put in place straight.)
Well into his 90s, Judge Bird was still happily planting and pruning roses along his rail fence. On his back land, he had a copper beech, a pink dogwood and a Meta sequoia planted among others. On land he bought across the street, he grew maples. He also planted and nurtured two holly trees in his front yard. Now nearly as tall as the house, the crimson berries on the female tree brighten the roadside in winter.
“He was a real steward of the land,” a neighbor remarked. When grand old trees along Music street were threatened by a road-widening project some time ago, he and neighbor David McCullough were in the forefront of trying to preserve them. (Never one for titles and preferring to be called Lee, Benjamin Bird was always a bit taken aback when the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer addressed him as Judge if they passed on the street). In recent years, the field across from his 18th-century West Tisbury home has been used by Allen and Caitlin Healy of Mermaid Farm in Chilmark as a springtime pasture for their sheep.
Although he was never a hunter on the Vineyard, he did hunt deer, grouse and wild turkeys in Virginia and sometimes in the early morning passersby on Music street would hear him trying out his hunter’s gobble call when wild Vineyard turkeys strutted through his yard.
In the same enthusiastic way that he tended his trees and flowers, he watched the colorful, dating butterflies (he once had a butterfly collection), and fed the birds around his West Tisbury house and on his Virginia farm. He liked recounting how Chandler S. Robbins, author of Birds of North America, was a Harvard classmate of his. He would then point out that the “S.” in his illustrious classmate’s name stood for Seymour.
“If only he had used that as his first name,” Judge Bird would famously quip, “his name would have been See more robins.” The dry, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, along with the gentlemanly Southern ways he had acquired from nearly a lifetime in Virginia, were among his hallmarks.
During his working years, Judge Bird could only manage a two-week Vineyard vacation, but the rest of the family spent a happy six weeks in West Tisbury. When he was on the Island, however, Benjamin Bird took full advantage of its attractions. He would garden, play tennis in Chilmark, sail his small sailboat on Tisbury Great Pond, go spearfishing, and enjoy the beach and the water at Quansoo. Once their children were grown, he and his wife began to enjoy traveling and visited many countries of Europe, as well as Egypt, Mexico, Australia and China.
Judge Bird was a devoted and outspoken Democrat, delighted that Barak Obama was elected and re-elected President. Because his father had died when he was 13, Benjamin Bird had attended school and college largely on scholarships. As an adult, he always felt he should do whatever he could to give back to others in need what he had been given in his youth, He offered his legal expertise to Legal Aid for no pay and served on the board of the United Way. He was a co-founder of the Black Student Fund, a District of Columbia organization that helped with integration of public schools in the capital.
In the Rappahannock area of Virginia where he lived, he was on the board of Hospice, the board of zoning appeals, the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Virginia Association of Biological Farmers. He was chairman of the Rappahannock Democratic Committee, volunteered at public schools and the library and chaired an adult literacy program.
Although his father was an Episcopal priest and he sang in the church choir as a boy, he never adopted that faith. When his wife became a Quaker, he sometimes accompanied her to Quaker Meeting, but he generally regarded himself as a secular humanist.
He is survived by his son, Christopher and daughter in law Mary Jane Cappello of Washington, Va,; his daughter, Stephanie Bird and son in law Frederick Ausubel and their children, Anna, Emily and Jonathan of Newton; and two sisters, Anne Mayfield and Eugenia Ackerman. He was predeceased by his wife of 55 years in 2004 and by two brothers, Jackson and Frederick Bird.
A private memorial service will be held at his West Tisbury home this summer.