Richard L. Champlin, 1996 Distinguished Naturalist

by Christopher Raithel

Following school, Richard was hired by the Redwood Library of Newport in 1951, eventually attaining the title of Cataloguer and Assistant Librarian, a job that Richard quips was “a double title without double the pay.” Having access to the combined resources of the Redwood Library was obviously to Richard’s liking, and during his forty-year tenure he probed first one question and then another, eventually self-educating himself in a variety of fields but with an emphasis on the natural sciences.

Richard’s interest in Rhode Island’s flora and fauna began in earnest when he met John Hudson. Hudson was an outdoorsman of great skill and knowledge, who took the time to acquaint Richard with some of the more interesting wild places in northwestern Rhode Island. Though John Hudson lived only a few years after their meeting, these field trips, invariably conducted on Richard’s day off on Thursdays, began a pattern of investigations that continue today, after more than forty years. Richard was always fascinated with the northern areas of Rhode Island, and his Thursday sojourns to Glocester, Foster, and other “remote” points were so regular that the natives teased him about setting their clocks by his visits. On the odd non-Thursday appearance they would feign amazement and utter, “It has to be Thursday today if you’re here.” John Hudson’s repeated and insightful advice to Richard clearly shaped his style and approach to the investigation of natural things. “Get to know the country people: they can show you something,” he would say.

In more recent years, Richard has not been one to sit comfortably on the great pile of site-specific information he gathered over the years, though he often teased that he would not divulge everything at once, “Or else you will lack further use of me.” He was on the forefront of plant conservation when he collaborated with Dr. George Church to create the New England Botanical Club list of the rare plants of Rhode Island. Though Dr. Church brought the clout of academia and Brown University’s formidable herbarium to bear in this exercise, the field work was primarily Richard’s. Similarly, years of Thursday field trips were spent with George Seavey creating the Rhode Island Natural Areas Survey for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, a valuable and unique compilation of unusual sites which eventually became the core of the Rhode Island Natural Heritage Program inventory. The Thursday field trips continued unabated as Richard selflessly revealed secret places and offered information about the rare plants for the Heritage inventory. These trips continue today, even at a greater frequency since Richard’s retirement from the Redwood Library in 1991.

Richard has published over seventy peer-reviewed and popular articles about topics as apparently disparate as his recent botanical finds, “champion” trees, the carvings on Box Turtles, the clock-making of William Claggett, the trees of Newport, and the springs of Conanicut Island. He counts among his most exciting finds a red-flowering form of the common Spicebush, a salmon-pink variety of Witch Hazel, and an unusual variety of the Rock Polypody. His wildlife sightings have been no less valuable, and he has contributed several significant observations to the Rhode Island bird record, including the first sighting of the Long-tailed Jaeger from land and the nestings of the Pileated Woodpecker.

Through it all Richard evokes a well-roundedness of approach which was more common last century, and is getting harder to find in this era of increasing specialization. “When everything is so obviously connected, how can you study only one thing?” he would muse. He is virtually unique among wildlife observers in recognizing that, for better or worse, the history of Rhode Island wildlife and habitat is inextricably linked to our human history. From consulting those who were connected to the land, Richard is able to blend human and wildlife perspective in a way which may never be equaled.

Christopher Raithel, Natural Resources Specialist for RIDEM’s Division of Fish & Wildlife, serves on the RINHS Advisory Board.

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