Only the good die young. I learned today that Gina Lopez, the former Philippines environment secretary, died today of brain cancer at the age of 65. Two years ago, on assignment for Mongabay and China Dialogue, I spent several weeks with Gina in the Philippines as she fought to preserve her position in the face of reckless opposition from that country’s mining industry. She’d ordered most of the country’s open pit mines shut down because of rampant water pollution and land degradation. She also started a government-sponsored campaign to halt illegal forest cutting. And she elevated the cause of protecting the country’s magnificent marine fauna and flora to a national priority.
For some reason, perhaps because I was an American journalist, she was candid with me about her life and the political trial she was enduring. Gina had already proven her eco-activist bonafides as director of her wealthy family’s foundation. She cleaned up parts of the Pasig River and started an eco-park to preserve a forested watershed near Manila.
Gina knew that her tenure as environmental secretary would be short, which is why she went so hard at closing polluting mines. During lunch at her home she told me, “When your business goes against the common good that’s a problem. When your business interest goes against the very future of our country that’s the problem that exists. I’ve been at this a long time and no one really listened to me. Now I have this position and everyone is like, “Wow. She’s making sense.”
Her fearlessness resulted in mining safeguards that still stand and attracted global attention. In December 2017, she won the $10,000 Seacology Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious conservation awards, for her “exceptional achievement in preserving island environments and culture.”
Gina’s life is an inspiration. She’ll be missed by me and so many others who admired her.
Steve Sawyer, one of the great environmental activists and strategists of our era, died July 31 from cancer. It came as a shock. Steve was a classmate at Haverford College, a friend for 45 years, and a heroic figure to me in our shared allegiance to safeguard Mother Earth.
Though his years were too short, what he accomplished in 63 has few peers. He was an important figure in stirring attention to the Earth’s deteriorating condition and rallying public support for solutions, first as a senior leader of Greenpeace and later as a top executive in the international wind energy sector. During the four decades of his work to limit industrial pollution, protect natural resources, and defend communities in peril, Steve played an outsized role in elevating environmental protection from a backbench civic issue to a top tier global priority.
All this occurred because Steve had grit and heart. He set big goals and was driven to reach them. He could grump and laugh in the same breath. He was engaging, trust inspiring, committed and dedicated — to his wife, his children, his work, his friends, and to his wire frame glasses and the beard he sported all of his adult life. To his guitar, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton. He never lost his New Hampshire accent. It was easy to see how determined he could be. Steve’s distinctive stride, big steps and shoulders hunched forward, was that of a man set on staying grounded and balanced, like a ship captain dominating a deluge.
His life’s work began as a Greenpeace canvasser in 1978, after graduation from Haverford. He quickly climbed into the top tier of executive leadership — serving as director of the U.S. office in Washington in the 1980s, and later as Greenpeace’s international director.
His tenure is unmatched at Greenpeace. In 1981, he led an engine conversion — drills and other power tools in hand — to replace the old engines on the Rainbow Warrior, Greenpeace’s activist ship, with new diesel engines used on buses. As one of the few salaried Greenpeace staffers he shared his paycheck with volunteers.
He also helped to convert the Warrior to a sailing ship in 1984, just in time for a Pacific voyage in 1985. Among the many campaigns that Steve led was evacuating nuclear testing refugees from their contaminated Pacific atoll, challenging France’s underwater nuclear testing, and safeguarding whales and other marine creatures from nuclear dumping and energy development. Most importantly, he masterfully elevated a scrappy activist environmental group into a titan of global influence and action on climate change and almost every other signal threat to the planet’s people, animals, and plants.
Starting in 2007, following 30 years at Greenpeace, Steve was named the first general secretary of the Global Wind Energy Council, the Brussels-based trade group that he founded. In that role he shaped the mammoth adoption of wind as a credible source of electricity, a solution to climate change, and an industrial sector capable of employing millions around the world. He brought that message to international capitals, including Beijing, where party officials paid close attention. In the decade that Steve led the organization, wind energy generating capacity around the world increased nearly eightfold, from 74 gigawatts to 539 gigawatts, or about 8 percent of total worldwide electrical generating capacity. Almost 200 gigawatts were generated by China, by far the world’s largest wind energy producer. Continue reading “Steve Sawyer, A Titan of Environmental Activism”
BENZONIA, MI — For a long while, many years in fact, Marian Gyr disdained the mobility afforded by motorized vehicles. She walked. Everywhere. Even in the blowing snow and drifts of winter.
Everybody I know here in our little village, on a rise close to Lake Michigan, has a Marian Gyr walking story. She was well into her 80s, with two reconstructed hips, and still walking far from where she slept. How many times — more than a few — did I see her by the side of the road, her gait strong and purposeful. Often she was holding a shopping bag. If I pulled over and asked if she wanted a ride, she’d wave her arms like swatting at bugs. “I’ll walk. I’m almost there,” she’d say.
Marian drew her inspiration for walking not from the need to achieve a destination, but from the power of personal purpose. She walked just like she lived, without guile or artifice. She was a woman born in the early decades of the 20th century who transcended social strictures and personal sorrow and disappointment to become a beloved guardian of independent values well into the 21st. She was timeless in a way.
Marian Gyr died on Saturday night. She was 97 years old.
In the nearly 30 years that she was my dear friend I always thought of her as Benzonia’s Grand Lady. Walking was just the clearest manifestation of Marian’s determination to do whatever she regarded as appropriate, righteous, just, and personally satisfying.
Walking also displayed Marian’s physical sturdiness, and especially the outstanding cardio-pulmonary internal infrastructure that so adeptly transferred oxygen to her blood and muscles. She was the genesis of the Gyr gear, which is the uncommon capacity she and her sons and grandsons possess to cover a lot of ground fast, without tiring.
She was unyielding in that way. When you met her it was apparent immediately. She greeted you with a smile and bright eyes, a warm hug, and a welcome hello. It was uttered in a resonant woman’s voice that sounded like what would happen if a ram’s horn was crossed with a mandolin. It was deeper than most feminine voices, clarion and musical.
Marian’s voice, insistent and unmistakable, commanded attention. It was the voice that led chants at public protests around here to oppose injustice — the Iraq War in the early century; prosecutions of underprivileged women facing trial at the county courthouse.
It was just the sort of voice a woman needed to reach her six boys, all of them as determined and emboldened, a flipping airborne tumult of male enterprise born and raised with Marian’s same genetic repository.
Here are a few of Marian’s life transitions that I’m familiar with. She and husband John raised their rambunctious sons in Brighton, Michigan, in a house where learning, love, and loyalty were taught and encouraged. She was an elementary school teacher. She read widely, and much later helped home school two of her grandsons. Here in Benzie County she sang in the Benzie Community Chorus and she helped organize and promote the development of the Betsie Valley Trail, a 22-mile hiking and bicycle path from Thompsonville to Lake Michigan that is one of Benzie County’s primary recreational resources.
She endured unspeakable tragedy as a young mother when one of her boys was killed in a bicycle accident. Years later a grown second son also died. Grief did not buckle Marian, though, nor did the end of her long marriage. She was so capable of love, in fact, that when John got sick as an elderly man she honored his request to be with him where he lived in Switzerland. She departed Benzonia for more than two years to care for him.
After all these years I’ve come to know well four of her sons, two grandsons, daughters-in-law, and a whole bunch of her family. They all express the same devotion to each other that she did. They all are as lively, as intent on making a difference, as interested in their days as she was.
The last few years, Marian lived in Traverse City. In May last year she came down to Benzonia for a party, during which her two-month-old great grandson, Addison Gyr, was introduced to the community. It was a splendid affair. So many of the millennial young adults that my generation raised in Benzonia attended with their toddlers. Four generations were on hand. A tableau of strong family and community. Marian was joyous.
And why not. Marian Gyr lived and thrived with a surety of purpose, like gravity, or the energy of the noontime sun, or the satisfaction of a long walk. Now the steps have ended. Like everybody lucky enough to accompany Marian, I grieve. I miss her.
I looked back in my photo archive to find a picture of Dennis Pace, my dear friend who died last week. I found I’d photographed Dennis solely in the winter while we skied or skated. Strange since Dennis and I spent a lot of time together during every other season, as well. He was a bike rider, a soccer and basketball and tennis player. We ran the Sleeping Bear dune trails and sailed on Crystal Lake. We shared good meals and drank beer on his deck and mine. We talked a lot about the ideas of the day. All the kids loved him.
Though he was raised in the Phoenix desert and educated at the University of California at Berkeley, Dennis very clearly ventured East to discover a region that fit his soul. Benzie County, near the top of Lake Michigan, is a one-stoplight forested county where no town holds more than 1,000 residents. Young people like Dennis arrived in the 1980s and early 1990s to build lives far from the places where they were raised.
Dennis landed in Benzie County in 1988. He, his wife Kate, and their two children, Isabel and Dakota, joined a community of caring people who formed a circle of trust and experience that he found delightful and absorbing. During the next 29 years Dennis built a lot of other good circles in Benzie County.
His passions were his children and grandchildren, his parents and friends, music, sports, and his community. When his kids were young he was a fixture playing midfield at every soccer game, center at basketball games, and wing at hockey games. After Isabel and Cody and all the other kids grew up, Dennis managed the Benzie Area Youth Soccer Program for nearly 20 years. He raised funds to keep the Benzonia ice rink open in the winter. He joined the board of Beulah’s Darcy Library. Trained as an optometrist, Dennis cared for us at the Scarborough Family Eyecare office in Beulah. The Betsie Current newspaper published a really nice piece on Dennis two years ago.
He loved music and played with friends every Thursday at his home in Beulah. He sailed and anchored a sweet and agile boat on Crystal Lake. He liked small parties and dinners with friends. He cooked an impressive brisket feast. Dennis was generous with his time and his affection. He liked the steadiness of firm schedules and easy events, like basketball games on TV at the Hahn’s, breakfast every morning with Jonathan Clark at L’Chayim Delicatessen, and coffee with friends every Saturday in Beulah. Continue reading “Dennis Pace Loved His Life in Benzie County”
Andrew Feinman, my dear friend, died on May 11 at the age of 61 following a long struggle with prostate cancer. It amazes me to write that sentence. It’s confounding.
Andy Feinman is life to me. His life. Mine. His birthday in April followed mine by five days. Our lives tied together for 56 years. All that trust and knowing. His big heart and fabulous big brass section laugh. His distinctive mix of stubbornness and tenderness. Andy’s death came too soon for his family and his friends. Like everyone who loved him as a brother, I’m adrift. It’s like a mountain mined from the landscape of my life.
I was privy to a lot of what made Andy tick. He and I met in kindergarten at Highlands Elementary School in White Plains, New York. We were five years old. We lived two blocks apart. On our bicycles we roamed the quiet streets of a neighborhood of tall trees and stable families. We played tackle football in the big front yard of Andy’s house on Soundview Avenue. He could not get enough of his brother Bob’s record of an English farting contest. Andy and I spent too much time trying to emulate its sounds of grand flatulence. Harriet, his wonderfully loving mother, called us the “gruesome twosome.”
One of Andy’s gifts was truly inhabiting his deep friendships, and conferring to each of them unique properties. My relationship with Andy was about development and progress. We liked to check the performance boxes of our years. How we were doing. With his other close friends he liked to party hard, or carry on, or be wondrously serendipitous. With me, he wanted to share honest evaluation of how we were faring in life. Kind of a periodic life experience report card.
We invited each other into the various rooms of our souls. Our professional ambitions. Our array of insecurities. Sessions with therapists. The various frustrations, especially early on, of finding – and in my case – sustaining durable relationships with a mate. In our occasional periods of unexpected turbulence we encouraged each other to be resolute.
A Man in Full
Andy married well. His wife Mary, and sons Nick and Reuben, were his core. He was a superb husband — thoughtful and aware and steady. He was a great father — proud and respectful of his boys and completely dialed into what they are about. I occasionally had the chance to spend time with all the Feinmans. Andy had good reasons to be proud of his family.
Andy was well-educated, earning his undergraduate degree in communications from Syracuse University, and his Masters in business administration from Tulane. I spent long weekends with him on both campuses in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. He matured a lot between the two universities.
At Syracuse, Andy was a young lion in full celebration mode. He seemed to know every person at every party. His appetite for fun was immense and his stamina was otherworldly. He could sing every tune and dance with grace, and style, and ease.