Alli Gerkman, Lawyer Who Worked To Reform Legal System, Buried In Michigan

Allí Gerkman’s energy and passion for reform was irrepressible. She had attitude and smarts — loved by her family and friends, admired by colleagues — that set her apart. (IAALS photo)

OLD MISSION PENINSULA, MI — On a sun-bright day, with a breeze that stirred leaves and a hawk that wheeled overhead, family and friends paid their respects and laid Alli Gerkman to rest yesterday. In a graceful ceremony of poetry, letters, love, and song, about 50 people gathered in a small cemetery here to honor a life cut short by cancer, but filled with Alli’s courage, and distinctive spirit, her humor and splendid judgment.

Alli’s mother, Betsy Alles, is a close friend who asked me to write Alli’s obituary days before the death of her daughter on August 31. It’s posted here in Alli’s honor.

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Alli Gerkman, the Michigan-born lawyer who settled in Colorado to make legal education more accessible to women and people of color, improve the skills of young lawyers, and restore honor and grace to a profession that is draining from both, won a prestigious honor in May from the Colorado Women’s Bar Association.

The Mary Lathrop Trailblazer Award memorializes an early 20th century probate lawyer much like Alli, a woman and a leader who surpassed conventional expectations to become an agent of change for a profession that needed to be stirred.

As a senior director of IAALS, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver, Alli distinguished herself as one of the young lawyers to watch as she worked to modernize a system of education and practice that had become too cumbersome, too dispiriting, too expensive.

In accepting the award, Alli, a graduate of a mid-level law school, explained the ironic freedom that comes with being underestimated. “I was good enough,” she said. “But not good enough for the most coveted paths after law school. I can say with absolute honesty that I was never interested in a big firm job. But whether I was or wasn’t, wasn’t particularly relevant when you consider that no big law firm would ever have hired me. My failure to tap into the well-born caste of our profession meant that I couldn’t qualify for the standard path of my career.

“That turned out to be my superpower. If there is no predefined path and no outcome expected of you in your career, you can do anything that you decide that you want to do.”

What Alli did was exceptional. During eight years at IAALS she developed a national survey then, based on the results, launched a national movement that identified strength of character, integrity, and willingness to work hard as virtues in new lawyers that are every bit as important to hiring and practice as expert knowledge of the law. She directed a national program, Foundations for Practice, that worked with law schools and a select group of law firms to develop a curriculum for teaching students what she called the “character quotient.” The intent was to better prepare young lawyers for the contemporary challenges of starting their careers, and to open law firms to a wider range of new hires.

“Alli’s footprints leave imprints,” said Rebecca Kourlis, the former Colorado Supreme Court justice who founded and directs IAALS. “Her personality leaves impressions. Her work leads to impacts.”

Alli’s work was cut short, however, by a rare form of cancer. She died in Michigan on August 31, 2019. She was 41 years old. But in the four years of her illness, Alli challenged the tumor with the same grit, tenacity and grace that encompassed all of her life.

She was tested in completely new ways. The medical treatments were grueling. In the first 40 months, Alli wrote, she endured multiple surgeries, 27 days of chemotherapy, 51 days of radiation, and “countless days of emerging treatments, including molecular and immunotherapy.”

“I know that this cancer will change my life,” she wrote. “It is one of the first things I knew as soon as I learned more about the severity of my diagnosis. It is an unmovable truth. But I can embrace that without letting the cancer define me and wash away who I already am—and who I will be. As I said to my colleague who wanted to know if she could let one of our organizational partners know what I’m dealing with, ‘Of course—as long as you make it completely clear that I am still in the game.’”

An accomplished public speaker, she added this in a speech in 2018: “I think about my own death all the time. I know I will die, in a way I never knew it before. But the most important reason to think about your own death is that actually makes your life better.”

Alli had moxie and courage in all things, especially in living after her diagnosis in 2015.

She cultivated the furrows of her relationships with friends, her family, and her colleagues in and outside Colorado with more depth and urgency. She was determined to keep her characteristic optimism, her ready laugh and sense of fun that attracted a close group of friends and made her a delight to her family.

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AppHarvest’s Big Idea: Bringing Food Production Indoor At A Mammoth Kentucky Greenhouse

Jonathan Webb, the innovator and chief executive who is bringing food production indoors and wants to change the economy of eastern Kentucky. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

MOREHEAD, Ky. – Almost 70 percent of American consumers, including those who love fresh tomatoes, are a day’s drive from eastern Kentucky. That proximity to big markets is the primary reason AppHarvest is building the largest greenhouse in the United States in a big field in Rowan County just outside this university town.

Sometime next summer, when production commences, the $97 million, 60-acre building will begin shipping 45 million pounds of fresh produce annually, primarily tomatoes, to grocery stores from Atlanta to New York, and as far west as Chicago and St. Louis.

“I asked the engineers, ‘How big can we possibly be to operate efficiently and effectively,’” said Jonathan Webb, AppHarvest’s 34-year-old founder and chief executive. The 2.76-million square foot building, now being constructed on a 366-acre field close to Interstate 64, is big enough to lower costs on materials, production, and distribution. “It’s price per pound. We have to compete with produce coming from 2,000 miles away.”

I learned about Kentucky’s AppHarvest project last spring and visited with Jonathan Webb and his colleagues in late June for this story in the New York Times. If Webb succeeds he and his staff will do more than produce enough vegetables to help feed the East Coast. He’ll change the economic vector of a state that has a $5 billion farm sector, but has been associated historically to horses and tobacco, and for that matter to the failing coal sector. In food there is salvation.

The mammoth project, undertaken by the two-year-old Kentucky start-up, weds Dutch greenhouse technology to rising demand for American-grown tomatoes, an appetite that has climbed to 20-plus pounds per person, second only to potatoes. With its digital monitoring, sun and LED-lit environment, recycled rainwater, and non-chemical growing practices, the immense greenhouse also responds to a host of cultural concerns about food safety, freshness, environmental quality and energy consumption.

Other food growers have the same idea. AppHarvest, which will employ 285 people, is part of a wave of new greenhouse construction changing vegetable production in the eastern U.S.  

More Greenhouse Development

Kentucky Fresh Harvest is building a 30-acre, $13.5 million greenhouse to grow cherry tomatoes near Stanford, also in Kentucky, about 100 miles southeast of Morehead. Mucci Farms, a Canadian company, just opened the first of three large greenhouses for tomato production on a 75-acre farm in Huron, Ohio. Mastronardi Produce last year finjshed a 20-acre greenhouse for vegetables in Wapakoneta, Ohio. The Canadian company operates six others in Ohio, Michigan and New York.

AppHarvest is intent on meeting the rising demand for fresh tomatoes in a market increasingly supplied by imports from Mexico and Canada.

The two countries account for more than half of the $3 billion American fresh tomato market. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says U.S. production, meanwhile, is declining.  Fresh tomato growing in Florida, a major producer, has fallen to around 30,000 acres, down from 39,400 acres at the start of the century, according to the U.S.D.A. Similar reductions have occurred in California, North Carolina, and other tomato suppliers.

Forehead State University built and operates a robotics research and development center close to where AppHarvest is buildings its greenhouse. Proximity to a state university is one reason Webb chose the site for his project. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

AppHarvest’s founder also is intent of leveraging his big greenhouse to promote two other transformative ideas. The first is to build huge AppHarvest greenhouses in other eastern Kentucky communities.  The second, he says, is to be so successful that other greenhouse growers settle in eastern Kentucky, enough to replace an economy devastated by the collapse of the coal industry with a “sustainable produce hub” that would turn Kentucky into “the agtech capitol” of America.

That goal is achievable. Greenhouses provide a controlled environment that allows vegetables to be grown year-round. The U.S.D.A., in a report published in March, said greenhouse tomatoes in 2017, the latest year for accurate figures, accounted for 32 percent of the domestic supply. The same year, according to the USDA, Kentucky farmers grew tomatoes in 1.1 million square feet of greenhouses on more than 300 farms.

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Lessons From The Garden

Gardens are life. The lessons they convey about joy and sadness, care and diligence, love and insight are magical. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

BENZONIA — The tiger lilies are fading. But the pink blossoms of the rose of Sharon began to bloom this week. So did the blue blossoms of the butterfly bush.

It’s mid-August. Just as in every month since early May when I raked the leaves out of the gardens, taking care not to injure the yellow daffodils, flowers are coming into view while others slip away.

Odes to gardens and gardening almost always are exuberant in their enthusiasm for the sun’s generous light, the dark soil that lodges in fingernails, the stress-relieving pact with the ground and the seasons that calm the heart and strengthen the muscles.

This ode is a departure. It’s an elegy for gardens and their lessons for living a life of committed, caring relationships.

Boxwoods frame the flowers of the front garden. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Front garden. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Gardens, for instance, are useful in understanding marriage. You send a garden a pulse of love, they’ll send it right back. The more diligence, loyalty, love, and work you devote to caring for a garden the more beautiful are its flowers, the more colorful its shrubs and trees, the healthier its soil. A garden, like your spouse, appreciates constant affirmation. Disregard a garden for too long, say two weeks, and the trouble just mounts. Weeds grow. Wilt takes hold. Insects tote diseases that damage entire sections. The garden, like marriage, begins to dim. The damage can take months to repair.

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Steve Sawyer, A Titan of Environmental Activism

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.

Steve Sawyer in Auckland where French agents bombed the Rainbow Warrior in 1985. (Greenpeace photo)

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.
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Marian Gyr, Benzonia’s Grand Lady, Lived 97 Storied Years

Marian Gyr lived a long and purposeful life. Here with Aaron Olson and babies. (Photo: Keith Schneider)

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.

May 2018, Marian Gyr with her great grandson, Addison Gyr, and with Lindsey Stow and father Leland Gyr. (Photo: Keith Schneider)

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.

The Gyr gear in action. Superior cardio-pulmonary capacity. From left, Jack Gyr, Leland Gyr, Kim Gyr, and Keith Schneider. (Photo:Keith Schneider)

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.

— Keith Schneider