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Barbara J. Erickson, ‘catalyst for the conservation movement,’ dies at 42

Barbara Erickson, at a pond at Francis William Bird Park in Walpole.
Barbara Erickson, at a pond at Francis William Bird Park in Walpole.Handout

While leading one of the state’s most important environmental organizations, Barbara J. Erickson looked back with reverence and ahead with anticipation.

“We are always passing the baton to the next generation,” she said at the Trustees of Reservations annual meeting in 2019.

Ms. Erickson, who was 42 when she died of cancer on Jan. 15, played a key role statewide among those who preserve the open space jewels of the past and unearth new gems for the future.

“She really helped raise the level of play in conservation and open space in Massachusetts,” said David Croll, who formerly chaired the Trustees’ board and had hired her to be the organization’s president and chief executive. “She was a catalyst for the conservation movement.”

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In doing so, those who worked with her said, she also rejuvenated the Trustees, which was founded in 1891.

“She took a very legacy-laden organization that often took more time looking backwards than it did looking forward and she dared it to become infinitely more relevant, more engaged, more valid, more accessible,” said John Vasconcellos, a former regional director at the Trustees who is now president of the SouthCoast Community Foundation. “She was the definition of transformative leadership.”

For Ms. Erickson, such work resonated as much in her own life as it did among colleagues and the organization’s tens of thousands of members.

As the first woman to lead the organization, she sometimes visited its protected sites with her children, 11-year-old Lucia and 10-year-old Marcelo.

Looking out at the protected land, she knew that “hundreds of years in the future, there will be another Barbara Erickson and a Lucia and a Marcelo, and this needs to still be here for them to see it,” said her husband, Peter Torrebiarte.

In more than eight years as the Trustees’ president, Ms. Erickson guided the organization as it dramatically increased membership, revenues, and holdings.

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“Barbara has taken what was a great organization and made it world class,” said Rick Burnes, a partner and a founder of the Charles River Ventures venture capital firm.

“She came in in a situation where you really needed to change gears, and she was able to do it,” said Burnes, who formerly was on the board of the Boston-based Earthwatch Institute, when Ms. Erickson was chief development officer of that organization.

A key accomplishment, current and former colleagues say, was how she found ways to make the Trustees’ holdings more welcoming to everyone in Massachusetts.

That included the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln becoming part of the Trustees’ organization in 2019.

In the past few years, the Trustees also launched the Boston Waterfront Initiative, One Waterfront, to increase urban access to open space and address Boston’s looming climate change challenges of flooding and rising sea levels. One project, an East Boston park, would be within walking distance or public transportation for tens of thousands who otherwise might not be able to visit the organization’s other holdings.

“She was such a visionary and there was substance behind that vision — she brought that vision to life,” said Ronald O’Hanley, who cochairs the One Waterfront Initiative. “We were all led by Barbara, and we were all thankful that we had the opportunity to be led by her.”

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Barbara Jo Erickson was born in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., on March 2, 1978, and grew up in Gillette, Wyo., a daughter of Arnold Erickson and Dixie Hutton.

“As a child, I had what felt like unlimited access to wide open spaces, and I went on frequent hiking and camping trips with my family,” she told Worcester Magazine in 2012. “Through these experiences I fostered a love of travel, adventure, and exploration.”

She graduated from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where she studied English. In 2015, Westfield State University awarded her an honorary doctorate.

A job at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary brought her to Boston, and she arrived the day before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“She came here at a pivotal moment and immediately became part of the community,” her husband said. “She thought, ‘This is where I want to be. I want to be here the rest of my life.’ ”

They married in 2008 and eventually settled in Newton. From their first date they realized they shared a mutual love for food, dancing, and travel.

“She was always very proud of the fact that she had been to 50 countries in the world,” said Peter, who is director of operations at MASS Design Group.

Ms. Erickson was already introducing their young children to travel as well.

“We went to London together once, and that was my favorite moment of my life,” said Lucia. “She was really caring. I loved her so much.”

Peter said that they “tried to show our children — and for Barbara this was really important — that the diversity of thought and the diversity of culture is what really drives new ideas and new solutions.”

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Ms. Erickson was a senior executive at Save the Children before being hired as the president and chief executive of the Trustees of Reservations.

In June 2017, she was diagnosed with a rare cancer of the appendix.

She had been close to her mother-in-law, Adela de Torrebiarte, a former minister of the interior in Guatemala, who died of cancer in December.

“Cancer became very personal very quickly,” Peter said of the deaths, within a month, of his mother and wife.

Working while being treated for most of the past four years, Ms. Erickson was a beacon for colleagues.

“She was sort of the master of inspiration,” said Croll, who is chairman of M/C Partners, a private equity firm in Boston.

“I consider Barbara to have been one of my life’s greatest teachers,” said Vasconcellos, who had reported to her at the Trustees. “It is a life that we all should be paying attention to. It’s really hard to imagine the world without her.”

In addition to her husband, daughter, and son, Ms. Erickson leaves her parents, Arnold and Dixie, and her sister, Bonnie Jardee, all of Gillette, Wyo.; her brother, Mark of South Dakota; and two stepsons, Alejandro Torrebiarte of Houston and Gabriel Torrebiarte of Philadelphia.

The family will hold a private service and will announce a public gathering to celebrate Ms. Erickson’s life after the pandemic’s limitations on the size of crowds is lifted.

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Though Ms. Erickson had traveled around the world, she had found her home here.

“I’d tell her, ‘You may have been born in Wyoming, but your soul was born in Massachusetts,’ ” Peter said. “She really was in love with the Commonwealth.”

And while her leadership role meant daily meetings with donors, government officials, colleagues, and members of the Trustees, she knew her work was aimed as much at future visitors she would never know.

“Together over time, we have saved something amazing, but it is not just for us,” she said of one of the Trustees many projects, during the organization’s annual meeting in 2015.

“It’s like a sapling which we will never see grow to its height,” she said. “We must not ponder, but simply plant it in a sunny spot, take care of it, and watch it grow.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.