Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day: The Activist Who Hides Among Us And The Long Road

When I was in high school, there was a girl named Sue Buchanan who was in various classes I had for four years. She was extremely quiet, and though I had several classes with her over four years and even had to work with her on a project in an English class one year, I never really got to know her.

I remember her well, though, nearly 30 years after graduating from high school for two things that happened our senior year.

Senior year, Sue and I had a consumer education class together. I remember the class well because I crossed paths with the teacher years later, when one of his kids was the student of my now-ex-wife-- and the fact that he owns the company that makes the Oscar statues. I also remember Sue surprising me, and everyone else in the class.

The class was one of the most useful classes I had in high school. We learned things like how to do a checkbook and how to avoid various consumer scams, such as a Bait and Switch, and why term life insurance was a better deal than "Whole Life" policies.

The teacher brought in a lot of guest speakers, one of whom was an insurance salesperson. As the salesperson went through her rap, extolling the virtues of Whole Life insurance, Sue suddenly spoke up for the first time that I'd seen in four years. She whipped out her notes and systematically and definitively destroyed the saleswoman's arguments for Whole Life insurance. The saleswoman was literally speechless at the end, as was the rest of the class. The teacher quickly pulled the plug on the presentation, allowing the presenter to make a quick and semi-dignified exit.

That was not to be the only time Sue surprised us that year. One day, I opened the local paper to see Sue leading a protest in front of the local McDonald's. The McDonald's restaurant that she worked at, the one most of the people in the area went to, and many of the students at my high school (Lyons Township High School, in LaGrange) hung at on the weekends, was being closed. The McDonald's corporation, whose headquarters was in nearby Oakbrook, had decided that it wanted to close as many of the old franchised restaurants as it could. The McDonald's Sue worked at, in Countryside, Illinois, was the second McDonald's ever opened (the first was in Des Plaines, Illinois). The story made it to our senior yearbook in 1979, pictured above.

I'd love to know whatever happened to Sue. My guess is that she's still one of the quiet activists among us, rising up when the cause moves her.

On this, the 39th Earth Day, I'm reminded of Sue when I think about my favorite environmental activist, The Fox.

In the early 1970's, a mysterious person began perpetrating acts of eco-mischief in the Fox River area of the Chicago suburbs. The first instance that made the local news was when a 50 pounds of raw sewage from Lake Michigan was dumped in the reception area of the company that had dumped the sewage. Over the years, other acts of eco-mischief were attributed to him, such as plugged sewage outlets and smokestacks. His antics inspired Greenpeace and other environmental groups over the years.

For decades, people in the Chicago area wondered who The Fox was. Finally, in 2001, a New York Times obituary revealed his identity: James F. Phillips, a middle school science teacher. Upon his death of complications from diabetes, his family revealed his true identity. He had kept his activities secret enough that he was also able to work as a field inspector for the Kane County Environmental Agency. Rumor was that certain journalists had known his identity, but had kept it secret-- in return for Phillips giving them a tip-off on his next activity.

On this Earth Day, I'd like to tip my hat to the Sue Buchanans and James F. Phillips of the world, quietly working to help us, despite our best efforts to destroy ourselves.

I'd also like to share one of my favorite Earth Day memories.

In Earth Day, 1972, the second-ever Earth Day, I was in sixth grade at Parkwood Elementary School in Hanover Park, Illinois. We had a raffle-- one kid in each classroom got to take home a tree, a small sprig just a few feet long. To my amazement, I won the tree in my classroom.

I took it home and planted it in our backyard. It grew quickly-- when we moved out of the house in 1974, it was already 6 or 7 feet tall.

Around 2000 or 2001, my now-ex-wife Cynthia and I went to a wedding; the reception was at a hotel near my old home. On the way from the wedding to the reception, we drove by my old house. To my delight, the tree, which was visible from the street, was now about 40 feet tall. It had been there for nearly three decades, soaking up carbon dioxide, kicking out oxygen, and providing various families shade and enjoyment. If you have Google Earth installed, run a search on "1606 roder court streamwood illinois." Run it up close to the house. That big tree to the left and down is the tree that an 11-year-old planted in 1972.

As we begin to confront the epic mess we've made of our environment, trying to deal with global warming and trying to create a sustainable future, it may seem overwhelming. Yet, we should remember that this tree was a little twig at one time, and remember Mao Tse-Tung's addage:

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step."


dmarks said...

Thank you for a very interesting bit of Fox news.

Churlita said...

Very cool.

I used to be in the California Conservation Corps. I worked in Humboldt County doing Salmon Restoration. We did a lot tree planting and erosion control up there. It was physically the hardest work I ever did, but I loved every minute of it.

SkylersDad said...

I remember those first few Earth Days, being let out of school to go plant trees and clean up the creeks.

The highlight of my first Earth Day?

Being picked by my friends to be the one to wade into Clear Creek to pull the dead deer out.

LegalMist said...

awesome post. entertaining and inspiring.

Happy Earth Day! (It's also my little guy's b'day today). :)

bubbles said...

I'm a big time tree hugger.

It is gratifying to see the fruits of labor that have long, long term implications... but it also means the lots and lots have time has passed.

I planted trees at every one of the homes we have owned. I haven't been back to see them, but I think of them because I took pictures of them the day they were planted and I see them on the screen saver. We also planted a tree when each of the kids were born.

bubbles said...

Oh, I forgot to note that I worked in that building in the photo for many, many years.