Bill Barry at the Maine Historical Society reference desk in 2006. Courtesy of the Maine Historical Society

Harriet H. Price was new to Portland when she first walked into the Maine Historical Society in the late 1990s. She was in the process of establishing that the Underground Railroad went through Maine, a project that had been dismissed by historians elsewhere in the state. But when she stepped into the Brown Research Library, she met Bill Barry.

“I remember him jumping up from behind the desk and coming around to greet me and asking what I was interested in,” she said. She told him. “He said, ‘Oh yes, of course.’ ”

William David Barry died Sunday at the age of 77. He worked for years as a research librarian at the Maine Historical Society, where he was a resource to countless patrons. He wrote and contributed to books that expanded the understanding of Maine’s history, and he also penned hundreds of book reviews in the Maine Sunday Telegram over more than four decades.

His friends and colleagues remembered him as open-minded and a generous collaborator, always wearing a funny tie and holding the exact newspaper clipping you needed.

“Virtually anybody who came into the library – a scholar, an amateur historian, a researcher, an art historian – he would be one of the first people they would talk to,” said Steve Bromage, executive director of the Maine Historical Society. “He’s facilitated literally thousands of projects. He had such a passion for people and Maine.”

Barry was born in Vermont and grew up in Massachusetts. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Vermont, both in art history. He worked in various jobs, including as a curator at the Portland Museum of Art, before he got his position in the Brown Research Library in the 1970s.


One of his early friends in Portland was Earle Shettleworth, now the state historian. They found in each other a natural collaborator, and their first shared project was a book called “Mr. Goodhue Remembers Portland: Scenes from the Mid-19th Century.” They both loved a collection of drawings held by the Maine Historical Society that depicted the city before the Great Fire of 1866, but the images were not often on display. So Barry and Shettleworth published them in a booklet in 1981 so more people could see them.

That theme carried through Barry’s career.

“He was a consummate researcher,” Shettleworth said. “He had the background to know what he was looking for and looking at when he was going to original sources, particularly old newspapers and documents and letters and so on. He knew how to take that material and shape it into articles or essays or catalogues or lectures or whatever where he could communicate his findings to a broader public. He was really one to consistently share what he learned.”

Debra Barry, his wife of 43 years, met him in the late 1970s through a mutual friend. She wasn’t interested at first. (“He was too geeky,” she said with a laugh.) But he stopped by her job at J’s Oyster one night with friends to say hello and then called the restaurant the next day to ask her on a date. She learned about his passion for history.

“He was smart,” she said. “I thought, ‘This guy has got something going.’ ”

They married in 1980. Debra Barry said they were well-matched. They sometimes disagreed but never fought. They both hated camping and loved to read. They did not own a car and instead took long walks together. When they rode the bus around Portland, they always held hands. When she had cancer, he was constantly at her side.


“He said once, ‘I wish I could give you more,’ ” she recalled. “And I said, ‘I have everything I want.’ ”

His wife was his most dedicated reader and editor, a critical support to his career over the years. And he was a prolific writer. Before they were married, he started reviewing books for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. He was eager to share the books he liked and honest about the ones he didn’t. Debra Barry said he often read in the bathtub, and she recalled one book that made him so upset that she could hear his exclamations of frustration from the next room.

His own books covered local topics such as the Sweetser Children’s Home, L.L. Bean and The AIDS Project founded by activist Frannie Peabody. He cowrote with Patricia McGraw Anderson “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.” In 2012, he published “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England.” He explained the title in a Q&A at the time in the Portland Press Herald.

“There is more wilderness here than the rest of New England, and as a lifelong, half-Yankee, half-Irish denizen with 41 years living here, I would say the people seem wilder too,” he said. “That is, more engaged and more sharply etched.”

Jamie Kingman Rice started at the Maine Historical Society as a library assistant nearly 20 years ago and is now the deputy director. Barry knew something about everything, she said, and he taught her most of what she knows about the state’s history. One of his favorite figures was John Neal, a 19th century Maine writer who is considered one of the first major art critics in America.

“History isn’t just facts and dates, it’s about people,” Rice said. “That was an important quality to his writing.”


In 1980, Barry published “The Shameful Story of Malaga Island” in Down East Magazine. The article told about the government’s cruel eviction of a mixed-race fishing community on an island off the coast of Phippsburg in 1912. It was still 30 years before Maine Gov. John Baldacci would apologize for the state’s actions, and Debra Barry said her husband met with deep-rooted resistance during his research because the truth had been hidden for decades. Today, the story of Malaga Island is becoming better known.

When Price and Gerald Talbot decided to write a history of Black Mainers, their first step was to meet with Barry at the research library. Over the seven years they worked on the book, he sent them more than 500 photocopies of newspaper articles about Black history in Maine and was the first person they asked to write a contributing essay. “Maine’s Visible Black History: The First Chronicle of Its People” was a groundbreaking text when it was published in 2006.

Price and her husband, George, developed a close friendship with the Barrys. When he died, he was working on a history of the Maine Historical Society, the organization that had been his professional home for so long. The work is being serialized in the journal “Maine History.” The title is “The Mind Still on the Search,” a quote that Price said came from the society’s first president but also encapsulates her longtime friend.

“His mind was always working,” she said.

Debra Barry, 67, said she hopes to organize a “proper Irish wake” in June. In their Portland apartment, the second bedroom was his office. “A holy mess,” Debra Barry called it. She used to joke to her husband that she was going to light his many papers in a bonfire when he died, a threat that always made him laugh. In reality, she plans to sort through them with friends from the Maine Historical Society and hopes his records will be available to patrons there in the future.

“I will make sure Bill’s legacy carries on,” she said. “I just don’t want him to be forgotten. I don’t want his work to be forgotten. He worked so hard and helped so many people, and I want that to continue.”

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