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Hugh Putnam, 68, vocalist and conservation specialist

Hugh Putnam spent 30 years with the New England Forestry Foundation, including a decade as executive director.
Hugh Putnam spent 30 years with the New England Forestry Foundation, including a decade as executive director.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / October 12, 2009

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Summoning a pure joy that few sustain an entire life, Hugh Putnam arose each morning eager to pursue his four great loves. On most days, each was within reach.

“He had his passions: His music and his trains and his woods and his family,’’ said his youngest sister, Mary Putnam Mitchell of Groton.

“He was a passionate singer and passionate about trains,’’ said his wife, Heather. “And his other world was truly forestry and conservation - trying to get towns to preserve their forests and trying to get his clients to manage their land. I called him the last of the great foresters.’’

Mr. Putnam, who spent 30 years with the New England Forestry Foundation, including a decade as executive director, died of cancer Sept. 30 at the Hellenic Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Canton. He was 68 and lived most of his life in Milton.

Honored by state and national organizations for his impact as a forester and consultant, Mr. Putnam delighted in a career that let him spend decades of days walking in woods, appraising trees and preserving the natural beauty he had loved since childhood.

“Hugh simply devoted his life to forestry,’’ said John Hemenway, former executive director of the New England Forestry Foundation. “He was a terrific worker, always enthusiastic. He seemed to be absolutely tireless.’’

But even Mr. Putnam’s best moments at work were a prelude to the hours that stretched long into the evening as he spent time with family and practiced singing afterward. He often made breakfast for his children. By afternoon, he had left the woods or his desk behind to join one of them at an athletic contest.

“He was just the greatest dad ever,’’ said his daughter, Robin of Milton. “He would come to every game, softball or soccer, even if it was horrible weather. He’d show up from the office in a shirt and tie and change into a warm sweatshirt and an overcoat.’’

If his son’s team played too far out of town to drive, Mr. Putnam hopped a plane.

“He was my biggest supporter,’’ said his son, Ted of Milton. “In today’s day and age, I find that amazing. He made it look so easy and it’s only now, as a grown man, that I realize the great lengths he went to be around his family.’’

Having tended to family and forests, Mr. Putnam would head out three or four times a week to sing with a church choir, a community chorus, or a barbershop quartet.

“I would highly recommend that anyone with any sort of a voice try and get involved with a chorus,’’ he wrote for the 20th anniversary report of his Harvard class. “You will never regret it!’’

“He always was singing, whistling, humming a tune,’’ his daughter said. “It was amazing how much he sang - he always had a song in his brain. Whenever I got in trouble, he would sing it to me: ‘OK, you were out late.’ ’’

Hugh Theodore Putnam Jr. was born in Boston and grew up in Providence before his family moved to Milton.

By then he was at the Groton School in Groton, though his summers often involved spending weeks at South Pond Cabins in Fitzwilliam, N.H., a boys’ camp his grandparents founded and his mother helped operate.

Choosing to live in the shadow of Mount Monadnock each July and August proved advantageous the summer his sister Panny brought Heather McCusker to visit.

“His sister was my closest friend at Milton Academy,’’ Mr. Putnam’s wife said. “The first time I caught a glimpse of him was when I was at South Pond Cabins. I was 13 and I realized she had a gorgeous older brother.’’

They married on Oct. 9, 1965, the year Mr. Putnam received a second bachelor’s degree, in forest management, from what was then the New York State College of Forestry, part of Syracuse University.

Previously, he graduated from Harvard in 1963 with a bachelor’s in biology, after deciding halfway through college to change his career path.

“He was going to be an engineer,’’ his wife said. “Then he spent two summers working in the west for his uncle, who owned the Michigan-California Lumber Company, and he just fell in love with forestry. Back in the 1960s that was pretty unusual. He wasn’t a lawyer, he wasn’t a doctor. He was a forester.’’

Mr. Putnam was hired by the New England Forestry Foundation and initially worked “in Vermont - God’s country,’’ he wrote in his class report, five years after graduating from Harvard. The Putnams lived in Manchester, Vt., where he was a forester, sang in a chorus, and volunteered with a rescue squad.

In the years before the environmental movement had a significant public presence, he also was “doing a bit of environmental education, which is very rewarding,’’ Mr. Putnam wrote in his 10th class report. “There is nothing quite so exciting as to make grade school students more aware of their natural heritage through field trips into the woods.’’

In the early 1970s, the family moved to Milton. Mr. Putnam became chief forester of the foundation and in 1985 was named executive director.

“This meant swapping work boots and paint-covered pants for a coat and tie,’’ he wrote in his 25th Harvard class report. “But it also meant giving up black flies in the spring, ground-nesting yellow jackets in the fall, and, sometimes, heavy snow in the winter for air conditioning in the summer, a creaky old elevator, and traffic jams on the expressway.’’

Still, Mr. Putnam remained someone who throughout his life could sit contentedly in a forest clearing, waiting peacefully and patiently for a train of a certain vintage to chug over a trestle.

His life left him with many stories to tell, but Mr. Putnam was “such an enjoyable person to talk to because he didn’t talk about himself, he was interested in you,’’ his son said. “He was always so interested in everyone else around him, which made you feel so special.’’

At work or at home, in a choir or quartet, “people just adored him,’’ said his sister Panny Putnam Nichols of Sherborn. “He was beloved.’’

“He was just the kindest, most amazing man,’’ his other sister said. “And there was always that smile.’’

In addition to his wife, son, daughter, and two sisters, Mr. Putnam leaves two grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held Oct. 18 at 2 p.m. in St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Milton. Interment will be in the Garden of Seasons at the church.