Levin: Walter Paine Remembrance

Nov 7, 2018

When Dr. Robert Chaffee saw Walter Cabot Paine waving a long-handled butterfly net in a field of goldenrod beside a parking lot in West Lebanon, New Hampshire, he thought, “Now, there’s somebody I should meet,” and stopped to introduce himself.

Chaffee was director of Dartmouth College’s natural history museum. Paine was an inveterate insect and shell collector, a lifelong naturalist, and the owner and editor-in-chief of The Valley News - and in fact, some say he coined the name Upper Valley.

That meeting bore unexpected fruit seven years later when Dartmouth gave its discarded natural history collection to the fledgling Montshire Museum of Science.

When I arrived in the Upper Valley in 1977, I’d never heard of the so-called Boston Brahmins, those first families of Boston who were mostly descended from the Mayflower, wealthy, well educated, and socially responsible. Walter was one of them. His middle name – Cabot - was the tip-off.

And it’s safe to say that until I met Walter, who died last month at the age of ninety-five, I had no idea what real philanthropy was.

Walter’s devotion to science education was epic. He spent endless hours curating the museum’s invertebrate collection, scheduling Tuesday evening lectures, and organizing an annual dinner.

His financial generosity was also impressive, with countless hours fundraising, soliciting members for the board of trustees, and chairing that same board for more than twenty years.

In the beginning, Walter sometimes even covered staff salaries himself, and I think it’s safe to say that without his support the Museum, now a regional science center showcase, would not exist.

Paine also possessed childlike qualities, less publicly exhibited. Once, during a dinner at his summer home on Seal Island, Maine, I saw him anesthetize a line of lobsters by rubbing their carapaces with his knuckles. Then, he stood the crustaceans upside down on splayed claws, with thoraxes curled back for balance - a neat trick my grown boys still beg me to duplicate.

The oldest of five siblings, Paine grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts. Because they could not keep him from luring bugs through his open bedroom window at night, his parents exiled him to the uninhabited third floor. There his insect collection took off.

Now, eighty years later, Walter Cabot Paine’s world-class beetle collection resides at the Montshire.