Updated March 27 at 9:27am

A voice of conscience on environment, preservation

By John Larrabee
Contributing Writer
Trudy Coxe was fresh out of college and teaching English in Barcelona, Spain, when she first realized she wanted to contribute to the world by helping communities protect their natural environment and their cultural legacies.

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A voice of conscience on environment, preservation


Trudy Coxe was fresh out of college and teaching English in Barcelona, Spain, when she first realized she wanted to contribute to the world by helping communities protect their natural environment and their cultural legacies.

“That’s where I learned you could lose a landscape, and when that happens, it’s lost forever,” she said. “At the time, Franco was still in charge, and for all intents and purposes Spain was a fascist country where people had no opportunity to speak out. Investors from all over Europe were allowed to build up and down the coast and no one could really object. A thousand-year-old fishing village could be gone overnight to make way for development.”

Since that time, Coxe has never stopped speaking out. Throughout her career she has been a dedicated guardian of New England’s natural beauty, ecology and heritage. Through the 1980s she worked as director of Rhode Island’s Save The Bay, and for five years in the 1990s she was Massachusetts’ secretary of environmental affairs.

Since 1998 she has served as CEO and executive director of the Preservation Society of Newport County, protecting some of Rhode Island’s most historic properties. In that leadership role she has also made major contributions toward the success of the region’s tourism industry. The nonprofit owns 11 of the seaside mansions in Newport, and over the past decade the staff there worked to make those landmarks a top destination for visitors to the Ocean State, generating more than $100 million a year in economic activity.

“Trudy Coxe has devoted her adult life to making the world around her a better place for present and future generations,” said Terry Dickinson, assistant to the Preservation Society CEO. “Whether helping to save our fragile environment or preserving nationally significant, historic architectural treasures, Trudy has brought enthusiasm, passion and total commitment to the task.”

Coxe got her first taste of public service during her childhood in Pennsylvania. After a successful career in business, her father took a job as director of the Chester County Historical Society. “He recruited everyone in his family as volunteers,” she recalled. “Anytime we were free, he put us to work.”

As a young person she also spent every August at her grandparents’ home in Jamestown, which sparked her lifelong love affair with New England’s coastline. “My grandfather had us convinced that Narragansett Bay was our own private swimming pool,” she said.

Coxe earned a degree in history from Philadelphia’s Beaver College (now Arcadia University) and later studied at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the Institute for Non-Profit Management and Radcliffe Institute.

After college and three years in Spain, she settled in the Newport area and took at job working with an historic-preservation group. She oversaw the $1.5 restoration of the Friends Meeting House in Newport, and created an educational program for visitors to the site.

At the same time she worked as a volunteer with Save The Bay, the nonprofit fighting to clean up Narragansett Bay, then heavily polluted by industrial toxic waste, sewage, storm runoff, and unsafe handling of petroleum products. After several part-time assignments with the group, she took a job as assistant to the director. In 1979, she stepped up to the post of executive director, a job she held for the next 11 years.

During her tenure as leader, Save The Bay successfully pushed Rhode Island voters to pass an $87 million bond to upgrade the Providence sewer-treatment plant, then a major source of contamination. “That was a real crusade,” she recalled. “Fishermen, shell fishermen, boaters, property owners – they all came together to talk about the deficiencies of the plants.”

She also launched the annual Save The Bay swim, which now attracts thousands of participants. Originally, the event was held to publicize the cause; today it’s a major fundraiser for the organization as well. Coxe also campaigned to preserve undeveloped land throughout Rhode Island, a step that helped prevent further pollution of the waterway.

In 1990, then-President George H. W. Bush tapped her to be director of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, a top environmental post, and she spent the next two years in Washington, D.C. Her accomplishments there included designation of Monterey Bay and several other locations as National Marine Sanctuaries.

Then-Mass. Gov. William Weld appointed her to the post of secretary of environmental affairs in 1993. In that position she was directly responsible for improving New England’s regional air quality, protecting more open space than that of any previous administration, safeguarding old-growth forests, and modernizing drinking-water protection in eastern Massachusetts.

When she stepped on board, the state was midway through the clean up of Boston Harbor, a project she saw through to completion.

During an outdoor press conference lauding her department’s efforts to clean the Charles River, Weld demonstrated his faith in her efforts by diving into the water while still wearing his suit.

After eight years Coxe returned to Rhode Island to take charge at the Newport organization. “Trudy recognized that her mission would be to grow it into a nationally and internationally recognized preservation organization while ensuring its sustainability into perpetuity,” said Dickinson.

The first step in achieving those goals was development of a facilities-management plan, a digital database that catalogs maintenance needs. “We identified $100 million worth of projects that had to be done, and we set up a schedule for dealing with each of them,” Coxe said. “It’s a 30-year plan and we’re 10 years into it.”

Next, the organization drew up a strategic business plan that boosted traditional fundraising efforts and created new revenue streams. Using that roadmap, the Preservation Society has been able to increase its annual operating budget from $9.9 million in 2000 to $17 million in 2012. Ticket sales now top 800,000 a year.

In 2004, the Preservation Society reached another major milestone, earning accreditation by the American Association of Museums. Only 765 of the nation’s 16,000 museums can claim that status. “My focus has been to ensure we don’t get distracted from taking care of the buildings,” said Coxe, “and that we find fun ways to show them off to the public.”

The Preservation Society has also won numerous honors during Coxe’s tenure, including a preservation award from the Victorian Society of America for the exterior restoration of Chateau-sur-Mer; a Rhody Award from Preserve Rhode Island and the R.I. Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission for the restoration of the entrance gates of The Breakers; and awards from the Newport Historical Society for the $2.5 million restoration of the sunken garden at The Elms.

Coxe lives in Newport with her husband Jim Gaffney, president of Alpha Research, a public-opinion research group.

Her volunteer involvement is extensive. She currently serves on the boards of Grow Smart Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Commodores, and the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting, the Conservation Law Foundation and the Community College of Rhode Island Foundation. •


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