July 18, 2013

Barnacle Billy's founder, Ogunquit legend, dies at age 86

William 'Billy' Tower Jr. opened his landmark restaurant in 1961.

By Dennis Hoey dhoey@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Over the last five decades, some of the world's most powerful political leaders and even a three-time Super Bowl icon dined at his restaurant in Ogunquit.

click image to enlarge

Barnacle Billy's William "Billy" Tower, standing on the right in the back row with two of his children, Courtland Tower and Margaret Tower, poses here with presidents and a Patriot in this June 6, 2006, photo outside his Ogunquit restaurant. That's Tom Brady, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush in the foreground.

Courtesy Jenna Sevigney

But friends and business acquaintances say William "Billy" Tower Jr. treated all of his guests with the same respect that he gave to a U.S. president or an NFL quarterback.

Tower, who founded Barnacle Billy's Inc. 52 years ago, died Tuesday at his home in Ogunquit. He was 86.

"His death is the end of an era. He was such a big part of Ogunquit," said Richard Perkins, the former owner of Poor Richard's Tavern in Ogunquit.

Perkins, 82, said he and Tower had been friends since they were kids.

Tower and his wife, Bernice -- she was known as Bunny -- often ate at Poor Richard's Tavern.

"Table 30 was Billy and Bunny's Table," said Perkins, who retired five years ago.

The Towers opened Barnacle Billy's in Perkins Cove in 1961, and added an adjacent restaurant, Billy's Etc., in 1989.

"The restaurant was an overnight success and has been a landmark in Ogunquit ever since," Perkins said.

Patrons could walk in off the street for boiled lobster or steamed clams, or they could dock their boats in Perkins Cove and come in for a meal.

That attracted President George H.W. Bush, who came by boat, during and after his presidency, from his family compound up the coast in Kennebunkport.

After a celebrity golf tournament on June 6, 2006, Bush posed for a photo at Barnacle Billy's with former President Bill Clinton and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

"It's a date I will never forget," said Jenna Sevigney, who was a cashier at Barnacle Billy's for 12 summers. "I got to wait tables on all of them."

Sevigney, who no longer works at Barnacle Billy's, remembers her former boss as a generous person who treated everyone fairly.

"If you knew Billy and you worked for Billy, you were considered part of the Tower family," Sevigney said.

While the seafood and cheeseburgers are good, Sevigney said, Barnacle Billy's rum punch is a customer favorite.

Tower made a habit of visiting each table to make sure diners were satisfied. Young children called him Barnacle Billy.

"He was not just a name on a building, he was a face that everyone recognized," Sevigney said.

John Cavaretta, who owns the Village Food Market in Ogunquit, knew Tower for more than 45 years.

He said one of his fondest memories of Barnacle Billy's is the time Tower let him know that Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev and Bush were coming to eat at the restaurant.

Cavaretta took a seasonal employee, who was Russian, to the dock in Perkins Cove, where they greeted Gorbachev.

"We were one of the first to shake his hand. She introduced me to him in Russian," Cavaretta said.

More than 200 people had posted comments by Wednesday night on the restaurant's Facebook page.

"A true local legend," Donnell Sayward wrote on Facebook. "I spent 18 seasons working for Billy. I always went back because he treated me so well and was such a great man to work for."

Tower was born in Boston and eventually moved to Maine and started groundfishing out of Ogunquit.

Jeanne Batchelor of Wells said the Towers introduced her to her husband, Bigelow, who was first mate on Tower's fishing boat.

"A finer, more decent man never walked this earth, except for my husband," said Batchelor. "I guess we all thought Billy would go on forever."

Batchelor said she is certain that Tower's children will continue to run the restaurant.

Tower is survived by his wife, two sons, William R. Tower III and Courtland Clark Tower, and two daughters, Margaret A. Tower and Catherine J. Tower Koppstein, all of Ogunquit.

John Black, a funeral director at the Carll-Heald & Black Funeral Home in Springvale, said he was told by the family's attorney that family members did not want to be interviewed.

"Billy and Bunny were very private people," Batchelor said.

Services will be private. 

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

dhoey@pressherald.com

 

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