Why Charles Kusik's example endures in Berkshires

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PITTSFIELD — It takes tact to steer people through disputes about land, perhaps even a feel for diplomacy.

That might have been what enabled Charles Kusik to leave a lasting imprint on how land is used in Berkshire County — a legacy that lives on through an annual award in his honor.

Nominations for the 2018 award are being accepted by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. The winner will be announced at the commission's annual meeting Oct. 25.

Kusik was a middle-age man serving a top government role in his native Estonia when the Soviet Union invaded the Baltic states in 1940, after a nonaggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union as war loomed.

Because he held the high post of first secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kusik and his wife, Mary, made their way out of their homeland, moving to the United States that year and to the Berkshire County town of Richmond in 1941.

The couple had lived in the U.S. before, when Mary studied at Columbia University, and when Charles served as a ranking official at Estonia's consulates in Washington and New York.

Two months after they reached Richmond, Adolf Hitler's forces invaded the Baltics, holding the territory until it was retaken by Soviet forces in 1944.

By then, both of the Kusiks, in addition to raising four children, were diving into local civic affairs in the Berkshires.

Before the 1940s were over, Charles was engaged not only with raising poultry, but in helping to shape planning and zoning practices for the region, bringing municipal rules into forms that continue to this day. He would go on to lead Richmond's Planning Board, write the town's first comprehensive zoning bylaw and advise the city of Pittsfield — drafting a new zoning ordinance — and the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

During the Cold War, Kusik tapped his earlier expertise as a diplomat to speak widely about the impact of the Soviet Union's influence over parts of Eastern Europe.

Charles Kusik died March 3, 1992, less than a year after Estonia again asserted its independence from the Soviet Union, after the demise of the Berlin Wall in late 1989.

To celebrate Kusik's service to the region, the Planning Commission created an award in his name and, since 1996, has presented 22 plaques to people or groups who, as a nomination form puts it, "have made outstanding contributions to planning in Berkshire County."

John Barrett III, then the mayor of North Adams, got the first salute, in 1996, for his leadership on the reuse of old mill buildings to help launch the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

Asked Tuesday how the award changed his life, Barrett fell silent for a minute in the House chamber, where he now serves the 1st Berkshire District, then replied: "You mean change from a staid, old politician into a visionary?"

After a laugh, he got serious.

"I was quite honored by it. I was very proud of that. It took a lot of planning and changing," he said of the Mass MoCA project. "Twenty-three years later, we're still reaping the benefits of it. That was a thousand-to-one shot."

Other Kusik Award recipients have included former U.S. Rep. John Olver, former state Rep. Peter Larkin and former state Sen. Benjamin Downing.

Over the years, the award has highlighted projects involving bike paths, affordable housing, cleanups at polluted industrial sites, community economic development and early efforts, in 2000, to expand internet access to the Berkshires — a project that remains unfinished nearly two decades on.

"It's a fairly impressive list," Thomas Matuszko, the commission's executive director, said of past recipients.

Last year's winner was Roberta "Bobbi" Orsi for her work on behalf of the ongoing Age Friendly Berkshires project.

Matuszko said that when the commission's executive committee reviews candidates, its members are looking for people whose work has had a significant influence locally.

"Something that would have an impact on the larger region," he said.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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