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Deborah Ann Light dies; pharmaceutical heiress, philanthropist was 80

Philanthropist Deborah Ann Light, a philanthropist and early

Philanthropist Deborah Ann Light, a philanthropist and early board member of the Peconic Land Trust who defied blue-blood convention to live as a modern pagan, died July 21, 2015 at her home in Gainesville, FL. She was 80. Credit: The Light family

Deborah Ann Light, a philanthropist and early board member of the Peconic Land Trust who defied blue-blood convention to live as a modern pagan, died July 21 at her home in Gainesville, Florida. She was 80.

Her death was confirmed by her son, Michael Light, a San Francisco artist. She died after a long illness, he said.

An heiress to the Upjohn pharmaceutical fortune, Light in 1967 bought Quail Hill, the 30-acre Amagansett estate of cosmetics magnate Samuel Rubin. Over the next 20 years she added 190 acres of contiguous farmland, donating it all by 1995 to the trust, a nonprofit that conserves Long Island farms and natural land. She later lived in Sag Harbor.

Hers were among the first major gifts to the trust. A portion became Quail Hill Farm, one of the first community-supported agriculture farms in the country. Much of the rest is woodland or privately farmed.

Beginning in 1986, she also bought land in northern Florida, assembling 741 acres that today form the bulk of the Crones' Cradle Conserve, an educational organic farm, feminist retreat and nature preserve.

"She believed that we have a responsibility to steward what we own and to make sure that it will be stewarded in the future," said John Halsey, the trust president. "People sat up and took notice" of the trust's conservation mission after Light's Amagansett gifts, with landowners such as her friends from the de Cuevas family following suit.

Halsey estimated that Light's land would be worth between $63 million and $105 million today, if it were even possible to amass that much in a part of Long Island that has become a crowded playground for the rich.

"All of this was fields 10 years ago," she told an NPR reporter in 2006 as the two passed a supersized mansion built next to an East End road. "You could see all the way over to those hills over there. And then they started to put this up."

Light was born June 5, 1935, to Rudolph Alvin Light, a medical doctor, and the former Ann Bonner Jones. She grew up on a horse farm outside Nashville, attended St. Anne's Preparatory School in Charlottesville, Virginia, and received her bachelor's in textile design from the School for American Craftsmen at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1961. She received a master's in religious studies from Vermont College, Norwich University in 1985.

Her marriages -- to sculptor Tom Muir Wilson in 1958; painter Robert Thomas Taugner in 1962, with whom she had her son, Michael; and Broadway stage manager Peter Jennings Perry in 1966 -- ended in divorce.

In the early 1980s, according to her son, she had a spiritual epiphany on a trip to Ireland and began to practice Wicca, a form of paganism whose practitioners worship the divine in nature.

In 1985, she met Jeri Baldwin of Ocala, Florida, who would become her committed life partner until her death.

The two divided their time between Florida and Sag Harbor, and Light traveled frequently to read her poetry and represent Wiccans at religious conferences.

Light's son, Michael, described this era of his mother's life as liberating. "She really came into her own," he said. "In many ways she needed to liberate herself from a very restrictive and controlling set of expectations, parental and otherwise."

Light was cremated. A memorial service is planned for 4 p.m. on Sept. 19 at Quail Hill Farm.

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