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Volume 40 Issue 22 • Nov 22 - Jan 2011
now in our 40th season

Passing the Bell

by Suzanne Daub

After three decades of greeting island visitors, ringing in the Nantucket Noel Tree Lighting the day after Thanksgiving, proclaiming the start of Christmas Stroll, and announcing the winners of the Christmas Eve Red Ticket drawing, this holiday season is the last that Nantucket Town Crier Curtis Barnes will officiate.  He is retiring at the end of the year.

Nantucket Island has a long history of town criers dating back to the mid-1800s.  Barnes, who first came to Nantucket in 1972 and kept returning, was recruited to be Town Crier in 1980 by the Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce to replace volunteers Michael O’Reilly and Frank Berger.  “They were reluctant dragons,” commented Barnes, “they didn’t enjoy it as I do.” 

Though Barnes compares his appointment to “the way they used to get volunteers when I was in the Army...they ask for volunteers and everyone else steps back,”  he has enthusiastically embraced being Nantucket’s Town Crier.  “I love Nantucket, and this is a way to be part of the community.”  His years of experience in public relations and communications and as graduation Marshall at University of Rochester, Syracuse, University of Pennsylvania, and Tufts made him aptly suited to the task.  “I was so used to [addressing crowds], that this was actually more conservative.  My job in the academic world was dealing with people, press, and events.”  To be a good Town Crier, according to Curtis Barnes, you must “be able to reach out and enjoy being with people...making them feel welcome.  It’s the M.C. function—you have to be outgoing.”

Town Crier
Town Crier Curtis Barnes

After his appointment by the Chamber, he contacted colleagues in the theatre department of Tufts who outfitted him in his well-recognized red vest, white ruff, cutaway, and tri-corner hat.  His orignal buckle shoes have long since worn out.  The bell Barnes uses to ring in events also came from Tufts: it was a retirement gift from President Jean Mayer in 1985.  Engraved “Fiddian,” the bell is an antique WWII air raid warden’s bell used to warn of impending attack.

Barnes explained what he’ll do for the last time on Saturday, December 4:  “I meet the morning boat, lead the visitors to Main Street, give directions, and hand out the Stroll brochure.  Then I head up to Broad to Main and circulate through the crowd, telling them to get ready.”  At noon, he’ll announce the official start of Christmas Stroll and lead the way to Straight Wharf, where the Coast Guard brings in Santa and Mrs. Claus.  After the celebrated couple disembark, the Town Crier escorts them to a waiting horse-drawn carriage.  “Then I walk up Main Street in front of the horse, who keeps trying to run me over.”

“I’ve never had an unhappy Stroll...I like meeting and seeing the people,” Barnes explained.  One of his most memorable Strolls was the year that he wrote a proclamation for a young man who planned to “pop the question” on Main Street during the event.  “Everyone had been tipped off.  I turned to Rob and I said ‘On your knees’ and he knelt down and proposed...she looked at him and teared up.  I rang the bell for five minutes. It was a wonderful, warm feeling, a sharing experience.”

So if he enjoys it so much, why is Curtis Barnes retiring?  “Many a year, I’d end Stroll after being on the cobbles for eight hours, and I’d have blisters and my feet would be bleeding.  As you get older, your bones wear out, your feet wear out, and your brain wears out...After 30 years, it’s a good year to pass on the bell.”

Barnes and then Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce Tracy Bakalar began discussing the transition a few years ago.  “We were thinking about who would be good at this...someone with the characteristics a town crier needs...I happened to mention it to Eric Goddard—he’s very much involved in the community and he has the right personality—and he said he’d think about it...I’m proud to pass on the tradition to Eric.  He’ll be great, and being six-foot-six doesn’t hurt,” Curt added with a smile.

Incoming Town Crier Eric Goddard had his own way of summing up the transition:  "They finally found someone with as big of a mouth as Curtis Barnes....I am very much looking forward to taking over the Town Crier duties from 30-year veteran Curtis Barnes.  The Town Crier serves at the discretion of the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce, so I'd like to make sure all of our members know that they should not hesitate to call me if the need arises."

Curtis will announce this year’s Tree Lighting Ceremony on November 26; he and Eric will ring in this year’s Christmas Stroll together; and Curtis will end his tenure as Nantucket’s Town Crier by once more announcing the winners of the Christmas Eve Red Ticket Drawing.  “Why not end on a high note, with people winning money?!”

Curtis Barnes is sure there will be times that he’ll miss being Town Crier: “Of course I’m going to miss it — it’s been part of the fabric of my life...my feet are not gonna miss it!  It’s been fun to be there, and it will be fun to watch the next person do it and to see what he does better.”

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