By Anna M. Butler
Breckinridge “Breck” Chapin of Saranac Lake, New York passed July 11, 2000. He spent the last ten years of his life serving as the Coordinator of Volunteer Services at the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center, where he worked to establish the Butterfly House. He was born in Central Square, New York on December 1, 1932 to Lawrence “Chick” and Fayma Chapin. Breck and his sister Nancy were raised in his father’s hometown—North Bangor, New York, where they attended the Union School. Breck was an honor roll student for all of his elementary and middle school years.
He continued to be an involved and engaged student throughout his high school years at Franklin Academy in Malone, serving as vice president of his homeroom classes, playing football and basketball, running track, and leading sessions at his Youth Fellowship for the North Bangor Methodist Church.
He went on to graduate from The Peddie School, a college prep school in New Jersey, and then from Brown University in Rhode Island in 1955. At Brown he met Barbara Roop, whom he married in early 1956, in time for them to turn Breck’s Marine Corps orders to Tokyo into a honeymoon.
After his service, Breck briefly worked in marketing for the large industrial corporation, Alcoa, but he wanted to raise his family in the North Country of his boyhood. The Chapins relocated to Saranac Lake, where their five children—Sally, Polly, Linda, Laurie, and Bill—attended school.
Involvement at the VIC
Breck was passionate about education, and he served in capacity as both teacher and principal at the Lake Clear and Bloomingdale schools over more than twenty-five years in the school system. He retired in 1989, the same year that Barbara took a position as Coordinator of Volunteer Services at the VIC. When Barbara passed away at the end of 1989, Breck took over as Coordinator in her stead the following year.
At the Paul Smith’s College VIC, Breck amassed a corps of more than one hundred volunteers, many of them former students of his. Volunteers served as lecturers, aides, and bookstore clerks for the Visitor Interpretive Center. In the early 1990’s, Breck also met Linda Osborne, a Postmaster visiting Saranac Lake from Port Henry, New York. “He had a line,” she says, “Are you available? Do you live within one hundred miles of here?” “Oh course, afterwards, he saw how ridiculous that was,” Osborne says. “I still needed to work. It was long-distance, but it worked.”
The makings of an idea
Meanwhile, at one of the VIC’s volunteer meetings, the group decided to get creative. As long-term volunteer, Dana Fast, recalls it, “Somebody said, ‘Let’s do something interesting!’ and then somebody said, ‘Let’s make a butterfly house.’” Breck and a group of volunteers visited the Montréal Insectarium, a natural history museum in Montréal, Québec featuring a large variety of insects. This exhibit made a big impression on Breck. Later, at a recognition dinner for volunteers at the Red Fox Restaurant in Saranac Lake, he asked everyone to close their eyes. He described his vision for the Butterfly House at Paul Smith’s.
With his network of volunteers and naturalists, and with consultation from the Montréal Insectarium, the Butterfly House came together less than a year after Breck envisioned the idea. Volunteers and staff obtained funds through button sales and donations, erected a framework of poles, donated perennials and planted gardens, gathered caterpillars and butterflies, and stretched a net over the whole thing. The Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center Butterfly House opened for the first time July 1, 1993. At the time it was the first native species butterfly house in the United States.
First of its kind
The butterfly exhibit was publicized and soon Breck was getting mail from all over the country—Watertown, New York; Newark, Ohio; Manitowoc, Wisconsin; and Amarillo, Texas—to name a few. Zoos and parks throughout the States wanted to open their own native species butterfly houses and sought insight from Breck on how to do it. Breck answered each inquiry generously, sharing butterfly house how-tos, literature recommendations, and budget estimates in carefully typed letters.
He responded equally generously to people who were not writing on behalf of organizations. “Thank you for your kind note,” he wrote to one mother of four young children who had visited the Butterfly House and inquired as to how to start her own. “You may want to start with the garden first and plant host plants on which the butterflies lay their eggs. Your children may also collect caterpillars and watch their development.” In one letter to a friend after four years of running the butterfly house project, he playfully added “Butterfly Guru” beneath his signature.
Throughout Breck’s tenure as Butterfly House project lead, a dedicated core of volunteers assisted with development, maintenance, and interpretation in the house. Thousands of people visited the butterflies. “Oh, those butterflies and moths!” recalls Osborne. “He spent many a night on a blanket in the backyard trying to capture them.” “What we wanted to do,” Breck once said, “was encourage people to develop butterfly gardens in their own backyards.”
A living memorial
Breck’s passion for education, his involvement in his community, his gregariousness, his humor, and his generosity are visible in all the traces and memories he left behind. The Butterfly House was dedicated in Breck Chapin’s name a year after his death, in July 2001. As the current Butterfly House Manager, I became curious about this man for whom the house was named, but whom none of the current VIC staff had had the chance to meet. This summer I have seen the legacy of Breck’s work. Well over three thousand people have visited the Butterfly House, even in this socially-distanced pandemic season. Former volunteers who remember Breck, and former staff have popped in, with a story or a butterfly book to share. Visitors ask about the Butterfly House, gardening, and butterfly ecology.
I feel privileged to share some of the same experiences as Breck, exchanging knowledge and stories with this community, and I hope that the Breck Chapin Memorial Native Species Butterfly House continues to offer this exchange for many years to come.
Anna M. Butler is Butterfly House Manager for the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Information Center (VIC). This post originally appeared on the VIC’s blog. Click here to see it.