Tuesdays with a Special Group

Dave Cox, left, Cliff Fantel, middle, and Ray Sweet check out a balky nail gun at the shop. (David Smith/ecoRI News)

Dave Cox, left, Cliff Fantel, middle, and Ray Sweet check out a balky nail gun at the shop. (David Smith/ecoRI News)

Volunteers keep Rhode Island’s national wildlife refuges in great shape

By DAVID SMITH/ecoRI News contributor

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The “Tuesday Group” that meets each week at the Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge’s maintenance building has built a growing legacy. To say the group has saved taxpayers thousands of dollars is not an overstatement. The group’s members are among 185 people who in the past year have combined to volunteer some 16,000 hours at Rhode Island’s five national wildlife refuges. They may labor in anonymity, but their good work can be seen across the state.

Perhaps it’s the camaraderie that makes this self-dubbed Tuesday Group work well together. Some of the retirees have known each other for years.

Before its weekly sessions, the group lounges in an office and drinks coffee as everyone straggles in. Stories are told and they reminisce about days gone by. Conversation one week will center around catching stripers at Middlebridge in Narragansett; another week it’s about trips to Vermont or the West Coast. They ask each other about friends and family, to make sure everyone is doing OK.

The hard work done by this core group of six men can be found at nearly every refuge across the state. It’s just that you might not know that it came from a shop at Trustom off Matunuck Schoolhouse Road.

The group has been gathering each Tuesday at 9 a.m. for a three-hour visit since 2002. The group includes Cliff Fantel, 88, Ray Sweet, 81, Al Steadman, 82, Dave Cox, 79, Al DePersia, 80, and Bill Wright, who recently had a stroke and after undergoing rehabilitation is back home. A few weeks ago his son brought him to Trustom to say hello to the group. Individually, the others have either visited him at his home or spoke to him on the phone.

If you ask how long the group plans to continue, Cox speaks for them all when he says, “Till we die.”

The group formed at the South County Museum around 1996, where members did a lot of work such as mowing lawns, building farm gates, repairing buildings and building a chicken coop. At one of the old structures, the group renovated the top floor to create offices, which meant stripping the building to its studs, moving walls and putting it back together.

Fantel and Jack Swann, were the first two members. Fantel recalled that day at church when Jack’s wife, Jean, asked him to go down to the museum and keep Swann company, because he was working alone and she was concerned about his safety.

“She asked me to go down and sit and watch him, but I couldn’t just sit,” Fantel recalled. “There was never any money (at the museum.) Somebody once had him straightening nails to reuse.”

Back then, at its peak, the group numbered about 15 and included a plumber, who flew into France on a glider on D-Day, and an electrician. But the group soon thereafter changed its allegiance and took its skills to Trustom.

“We got recruited (by the U.S.Fish & Wildlife Service),” Cox said. “We are still the Tuesday Group. We weren’t going to meet any other day. We can be stubborn.”

“It is just a day we picked,” Sweet said. “It was convenient for everyone. Perhaps we needed Monday to recuperate from the weekend.”

Some of the group’s projects have included building an observation deck on Otter Point at Trustom and at Osprey Point. The 12-by-12-foot deck at Otter Point took the group about three months to build and was one of its first projects.

“Each of us left about three quarts of sweat behind on that one,” Sweet said.

The group also built a deck at the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown. Also at Sachuest, the group updated the observation towers, bringing the structure up to code with such work as installing new balusters. It also built a 12-by-12-foot photography blind at the refuge. The structure took four or five months to complete and featured a variety of doors and windows that allow photographers to photograph birds and animals. It also provided members with a few rashes from poison ivy, and they are proud to note that the structure survived Hurricane Sandy.

The Tuesday Group has built kiosks for nearly every refuge in Rhode Island. It built a portable stage for the Providence Parks Department as part of the Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership. The city is one of eight in the country to benefit from the funding. The funding paid for the material, but not the construction. Enter the Tuesday Group.

One of its latest projects was building five kiosks for the Blackstone Parks Conservancy.

“It’s enjoyable,” said Fantel, who was the fire chief for a department in Bedford Hills, N.Y., after serving in the Pacific during World War II aboard a Navy LCT 838. The designation of his landing craft rolls off his tongue without hesitation. “I’ll never forget that number. The same can be said about the serial number on my dog tags.”

Fantel still wears his dog tags, only now they function to hold his emergency response button. He needed a chain and figured why not use it.

Since Fantel already owned a home in Rhode Island, he moved here permanently in 1988 when he retired. He and his wife and their three kids started coming to Rhode Island in 1949, when a summer rental was less than $25 a week.

Fantel said there are other things he could be doing but explained that the group gets all the materials that it needs and “being with the guys ... they are a good bunch.”

Recently, the guys arrived on a Tuesday to finish building kiosks. Laid out on the table saw were additional dust masks and eye protection. The group was surprised, but thrilled, and quickly stowed them in a cabinet. The next week a cordless drill was dropped off.

DePersia said he appreciates the camaraderie. “It’s just the good feeling you get from volunteering and doing things,” he said.

It’s a sentiment echoed by all of the volunteers.

“I feel good when I am volunteering,” Steadman said. “This country has been very good to me. It’s nice to give something back. And they are a good bunch of guys.”

“Everybody?” DePersia asked, with a smile.

When asked his age, DePersia, a retired general contractor, replied, “Eighty years old. Almost as old as Cliff, but he looks it!”

“If he’s lucky, he will catch up,” replied Fantel, with a grin.

DePersia makes intricate scale drawings for all the projects the group builds, so plans are ready if a request comes in for a similar project.

The skill was self-taught. “Instead of explaining something to somebody, I would draw a picture,” DePersia said. He said he has some drafting tools, including a scale rule. The pencil drawings are easily readable and done on graph paper and kept in a manila file.

Steadman keeps himself busy with work for “half-a-dozen outfits,” including the American Legion Post, and helps with Snug Harbor Fire Station 5’s annual May breakfast. He was a member of the military police and served at Camp Gordon in Georgia.

He worked later with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and then 18 years with the South Kingstown School Department as a custodian. Steadman is one of the new guys and marks one year of service this month.

“I’m a type A personality,” he said. “I gotta do something.”

Cox said it’s nice to volunteer. He was a member of the Navy Seabees and retired from the New York State Electric and Gas Corporation.

“The wildlife people here are the greatest people to work for and that has a lot to do with it,” he said. “Plus, we need something to do on Tuesday. They buy all the stuff and let us play.”

Sweet also served in the military, “the Army’s 39th Engineer group,” he said with pride. “It’s like the Seabees, but only a little better.”

Cox didn’t respond to the playful taunt.

Sweet, who retired from Bostich, said his Army group helped build the Alaskan Highway. So why does he volunteer? Sweet said it’s a matter of “social responsibility. You have to give back a little.”

Holding this volunteer group together is Sarah Griffith, the national wildlife refuge volunteer coordinator for Rhode Island.

“They do such good work,” she said. “We have 12 full-time staff members for all five refuges in Rhode Island. We wouldn’t be able to do half the work we do without them.”

Besides kiosks and observation decks, the group has built brochure boxes, wood duck boxes and birdhouse kits that are sold by the Friends of the National Wildlife Refuges. The group also built non-lethal box traps for a New England cottontail study.

The head of maintenance, John Laauwe, is a steady presence at the shop at Trustom. He gets along easily with the group. One morning he said he heard that an order was coming in for a bench, to which Sweet replied, “We have two more projects after this. Some libraries to build. Put it on the list.”

And so it goes.