During 34 years working for the Massachusetts Department of Natural Resources, Gilbert Bliss remained true to his goal of making the state’s parks and recreation spaces accessible to as many people as possible, colleagues say.
“No one did more to create the Massachusetts state park system,” Germaine Vallely, training coordinator in human resources at the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, said of Mr. Bliss, who in June received the President’s Award from the National Association of State Park Directors. “He was a wise, good, humble man who was an extraordinary public servant.”
Mr. Bliss, who for 12 years served as director of forests and parks for what was then the state Department of Environmental Management, died of heart failure July 29 in his Middleborough home. He was 81 and had worked as a consultant and served on the Middleborough Community Preservation Act Committee until he died.
As both a public official and a private citizen, he advocated for protecting forests and public spaces.
“No time is a good time to talk about increased taxes, but we’ve got to do something to preserve open space in this town,” Mr. Bliss told the Globe in 2002, when Middleborough was about to vote on a proposed tax increase that would raise money to support land preservation, curb development, and promote affordable housing.
He added that he was on a fixed income himself and was not “real excited” about an increase in property taxes, “but it’s something that needs to be done.”
Voters defeated the measure a few days later, and Mr. Bliss described the outcome as “a big disappointment.”
‘No one did more to create the Massachusetts state park system.’
When he retired in 1988, the department he supervised employed hundreds of full-time employees, many more seasonal workers, and managed land and facilities across Massachusetts, from state parks and forests to campgrounds and skating rinks.
“It was a very complex system to manage, and he did it very well,” said Bob Freeman, a friend and former colleague who became director of state parks for Connecticut. “He was a classic Yankee: quiet, but boy, you really respected him.”
He described Mr. Bliss as “extremely intelligent, a real deep thinker,” and said he was “always improving services for the public.”
Mr. Bliss devoted considerable energy to developing young staff, Freeman said, and taught them everything from “chain-saw safety to how to be a good leader, the whole gamut.”
To honor Mr. Bliss, the state named a parcel of state land along the Westfield River in Chesterfield the Gilbert A. Bliss State Forest after he retired.
Gilbert A. Bliss was born in Ware in 1932 and grew up in Warren, where he made friendships that lasted through his life.
“He was a wonderful person,” said Jane Dolan, who, along with other friends, had planned to see Mr. Bliss at an upcoming high school reunion. “He had the most wonderful, contagious laugh. We were always trying to make him laugh, just so we could hear it.”
During high school in Warren, he distinguished himself on the baseball diamond and basketball court. After graduating in 1950, he studied forestry and graduated from what then was the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
He met Annette George in the mountains of New Hampshire, where both their families owned land. They married in Peterborough, N.H., in 1952. She died in 2000.
After a two-year stint in the US Army during the Korean War, Mr. Bliss began working as a supervisor at Nickerson State Park in Orleans, and he and his wife settled in Brewster to raise their family. In the late 1950s, Mr. Bliss pitched for a team in the Cape Cod League for several seasons.
His work with the state took him and his family across the state. He worked in Plymouth, Hampshire, and Berkshire counties, living in Brewster, Cummington, and finally Middleborough, where the family moved in 1970.
Gilbert W. Bliss of Greenfield, N.H., described his father as “always fun” and said his professional and personal lives often intersected.
“When we were growing up, our recreation time as a family would involve driving through state parks,” he said.
His father was a devoted Red Sox fan, he said. “This summer was the 50th anniversary of him first taking me to Fenway Park,” his son said. “Probably the last night of his life, he was watching the Red Sox play.”
Besides sports, Mr. Bliss enjoyed music and the arts. He was an avid gardener and horticulturalist who, with his family, ran a business growing and selling herbs from their Middleborough home. He also enjoyed spending vacations at the family cabin in Greenfield, N.H.
“His personal interests kind of stemmed from his professional interests,” said Freeman, who added that Mr. Bliss was an enthusiastic supporter of land trusts, conservation groups, and nonprofit organizations across Massachusetts.
A service has been held for Mr. Bliss, who in addition to his son, leaves a daughter, Cynthia of Middleborough; two other sons, Donald of East Freetown and Mason of Middleborough; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Alden Cousins, a longtime friend and colleague, recalled that Mr. Bliss worked with a group of troubled teenagers while he was a supervisor at Nickerson State Park in Brewster about 40 years ago.
“These boys all had kind of a miserable existence,” Cousins said. “Gil taught them how to use tools, how to work in the woods.”
Cousins said that recently, he ran into one of those boys, who is now grown.
“He’d been at the youth facility with Gil and told me what a great person he was,” he said. “He said he’d remembered him all his life.”
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