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Peter Barry, defense executive and LI business advocate, dies at 90

Peter Barry, 90, of Northport, died Sept. 23.

Peter Barry, 90, of Northport, died Sept. 23. Credit: Kevin Barry

In key ways, Peter Barry of Northport matched the mood of his times, an executive in the defense industry and a transplant to Long Island while both were booming like there was no end.

And, much like the era itself, “his optimism was boundless,” said his first child, Kevin Barry of Northport.

Barry, a Navy veteran, died Sept. 23 of heart failure at age 90. He had led Grumman’s lobbying office in Washington, D.C., chaired the Long Island Association, sat on Huntington Town zoning boards and boosted the revenue of Hartman Systems, a Huntington-based defense electronics company, from $2.4 million in sales to $32 million annually during his 15 years as chief executive.

A Depression-era child, Barry grew up in Marblehead, Massachusetts, where his family saved the butter remnants from dinner plates to spread on lunch bread the next day and where by the time he was 14, he worked summers with bricklayers, Kevin Barry said.

But despite this rough start, things always seemed to work out for him, his family said.

Just before World War II ended in 1945, he enlisted in the Navy, then got accepted into the Naval Academy. He was at risk of being kicked out if he fell into the bottom 10th of his class, so he prayed every day at church for a year, Kevin Barry said. He passed.

Before he graduated in 1952, he met the love of his live on a blind date. Her name was Sheila Connolly, a sort of dream for Barry’s mother, who bore two sons but had always wanted a daughter she would have named Sheila, relatives said.

After serving during peacetime in the Pacific Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, Barry left the Navy in 1956 and worked for several major electronics and defense companies, including Sperry and Litton, before becoming Hartman’s president in 1974. He grew the company from 120 employees to 340, garnering contracts with the military and defense giants because he was personable, those who knew him said.

“In business and with us, he was really straightforward,” the younger Barry said.

There was no question that Barry loved his adopted home of Long Island. He moved to Northport in 1964 after driving around looking for a quaint seaside town that reminded him of his beloved Marblehead.

At that time, the Island’s vast fields were starting to be eaten up by development, and Barry saw that the Island could be a great place but it needed intelligent planning, Kevin Barry said. To him, Long Island was not New York City’s bedroom community but a diverse region that could be self sufficient, his son said.

“He saw Long Island as this perfect marriage of a beautiful place with talented people,” his son said.

To his friend of half a century, Tony Curto of Northport, Barry had a “frontier spirit” that made him ahead of his time. He pushed his business pals to get onto arts councils and other boards to shape the Island’s future.

Like the westerns he watched almost every night on television, Barry was like the good guy that people sought for decisive advice, Curto said: “Every time I saw John Wayne, I saw Peter Barry. He was always so self assured. He had presence.”

Barry became the chairman of the Long Island Association in 1983, a time when the business group was trying to flex its muscle in planning issues. He was active in municipal and corporate circles, and there was even talk that he would become Suffolk County’s commissioner for economic development.

Barry was mulling retirement when something else worked out for him. A friend asked him to be Grumman’s vice president at its Washington, D.C., office. There, he fought efforts to sink contracts for the F-14 fighter jet, key to Long Island jobs.

In his spare time, Barry parlayed his love of golf and the arts into charitable acts. For example, after his first open heart surgery at age 50, he and fellow golfers were comparing scars when they decided to set up the Open Heart Open annual golf fundraiser, which has raised about $1 million for the American Heart Association and St. Francis Hospital, his family said.

“He really took the corporate community service seriously,” Kevin Barry said.

Barry’s second open heart surgery at age 80 was perhaps one of the few times that things did not work out perfectly because doctors could not erase lingering pain, his son said.

“He said, ‘You know, I was kind of surprised that it happened because things always just kind of worked out for me,’ ” the younger Barry recalled. “I just had to laugh to myself. That was when it really struck me how optimistic he was.”

Besides his first son, Barry is survived by children, Kate Hawkins of Yarmouth, Maine, Dina Pigott of Seattle; and P. J. Barry of Manhasset; along with 10 grandchildren.

A Mass was held Saturday at St. Philip Neri Church in Northport, followed by burial at Northport Rural Cemetery. Donations in lieu of flowers may be made to the American Heart Association and the U.S. Navy Memorial Fund.

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