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Basil R. Northam dies; naturalist helped save Whitman legacy

Basil Northam was a trustee for the Walt

Basil Northam was a trustee for the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association. Credit: Bruce Northam

Basil R. Northam, an educator and naturalist who worked to preserve Walt Whitman’s legacy, has died.

He was 89.

With binoculars around his neck and magnifying glass in hand, he explored the wild pieces of Long Island and the Adirondacks with friends and family, led hikes and dug for Native American artifacts. He also lectured on art, history and the environment.

“He was an absolute hard-core naturalist,” said his son Bruce Northam of Manhattan. “In the Long Island region and upstate New York, he knew every bird, shrub, flower or plant.”

Born in March 1928 to English immigrants in East Meadow on the eve of the Depression, he grew up with two siblings in Floral Park. He graduated from Sewanhaka High School.

He received a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from Emerson College in Boston and master’s degrees in education from Adelphi and Hofstra universities.

A penchant for wandering came early. A favorite story he told his kids was of sneaking into an “unsanctioned” sumo wrestling match while serving as a paratrooper in the postwar occupation of Japan.

“He was a bit of a rule breaker,” Bruce Northam said.

That fit for a devotee of writer Henry David Thoreau who kept a copy Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” handy. When Whitman’s childhood home in Huntington Station was threatened with the wrecking ball, Northam went door to door collecting money for a 1951 campaign that saved it. He became a trustee of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association that operates the historic site.

He first noticed Johanna, the woman he would marry, at Point Lookout on the Long Beach barrier island.

“When I first met him he kissed my hand,” Johanna Northam said. He proposed to her twice.

The first time she broke off the engagement to pursue a career in fashion in Manhattan. She returned and he took her to Jayne’s Hill, a spot frequented by Whitman near his house and which Northam told Newsday in 1976 was “hallowed ground,” to ask her again, and they wed.

Manhattan jazz clubs were a regular draw for the Lindy-hopping newlyweds.

“We’d go and we’d start dancing, and we were so good everyone would stop and look at us,” she said.

He became a teacher and administrator in special education at Seaford High School. He retired at 55, but leaving the classroom didn’t end his teaching. The couple moved to Southold from Garden City and for decades he gave lectures at libraries on art, local history and nature, garnering a New York Times listing in 1998 for a talk on women artists from the Renaissance to the present day.

Hiking with Johanna and their three boys was about getting lost and finding their way again.

“He just knew to get up to a high point and survey the landscape and he’d always get us back,” Bruce Northam said.

He suffered from dementia in his final years and his family said he died peacefully of natural causes on Dec. 27, at San Simeon by the Sound nursing home in Greenport.

He is survived by two other sons, Basil Jr. of Tetonia, Idaho, and Bryan of Manhattan; two grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

Northam’s body was donated to science and the family plans a private remembrance of his life in the spring.

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