Thursday, June 19, 2014

Another Environmental Leader in Greenwich: Lucy Man Jinishian

In the summer residents of Greenwich enjoy any number of parks and conservancies offering a variety of leisure activities. In addition there are beaches and water sports to enjoy. These well-preserved outdoor spaces and clean waterways did not come without the tireless efforts of the town’s environmental leaders.

One community leader who over the years protected the town’s shoreline and waters is Lucy Jinishian. Her work in establishing the Greenwich Environmental Action Group and her efforts to reestablish shellfishing in Greenwich after years of dormancy have had lasting impact.

There are two interviews in the Oral History Project collection with Ms. Jinishian, both helping to tell the story of her stewardship of the town’s environment. The first is “The Greenwich Environmental Action Group,” conducted in 1975, and the second is “Shellfishing in Greenwich,” conducted in 2006.

Ms. Jinishian’s environmental activism goes back to late 1970 with a letter to HELCO (Hartford Electric Light Company, later absorbed by Connecticut Light and Power) executives about plans to build an 800-megawatt power plant that because of large amounts of heated water flowing back into the Sound would create a potentially tremendous threat. The plan also included an oil-unloading platform near Tod’s Point, which, according to Ms. Jinishian, was “not to be borne without a struggle.”

Out of this struggle came GEAG, the Greenwich Environmental Action Group.

She and other volunteers spent nearly six months researching and attending meetings, gathering reports and informing the public about the proposed plant. Approximately five thousand fact sheets spelling out the air and water pollution effects on Greenwich were widely distributed throughout the town.
Photo from Friends of Greenwich Point

After repeated correspondence and meetings with company executives, plans for the plant were finally dropped. Ms. Jinishian and the volunteers did not take full credit for the change in plans, but they certainly played a major role in reversing them.

The GEAG played a significant role in many other environmental decisions in town. They were so influential that in January of 1975 the group decided to suspend activity. That may sound counterintuitive, but the reasoning behind the decision was sound. The organization was so well organized that all environmental issues found their way to the group’s doorstep, meaning that other volunteer groups supposedly active in environmental concerns were taking a back seat to GEAG. Since their aim was and had been from the start to involve the community, they believed the best way to get others involved was to take a step back themselves. Their plan was to become active again when the issues were large enough that the town would benefit from their background and extensive experience in successfully fighting battles worthy of the struggle.

Another Good Fight:

In the early 1980s, after the town’s shellfish beds had been closed to recreational shellfishing since 1960, oystermen began coming into Greenwich Cove, taking oysters out to a “mother ship” and whisking their haul away for commercial gain. According to Ms. Jinishian, “They sort of cleaned the Cove out of a lot of oysters.” This practice did not sit well with her. As a result, she and other concerned citizens, including Dan Barrett, took steps to remediate the situation. Out of this, the town of Greenwich Shellfish Commission was formed in 1986.

Photo from Shellfish Commission, Town of Greenwich

After repeated water sampling conducted in approximately thirty-five sampling stations over a period of years, the Commission was able to reopen the beds to the public in the fall of 1991. Since that time the commission has been active in overseeing the status of the beds, replenishing them as necessary after population-threatening disease and after catastrophic storms, such as Hurricane Sandy.

At the time of her interview on the Shellfish Commission in 2006, Ms. Jinishian had retired but promised to stay active in an advisory capacity, and so she has.

It is because of the commitment and involvement of community leaders like Lucy Jinisian, the residents of Greenwich can enjoy a multitude of summer activities, including visiting the Seaside Environmental Education Center at Tod’s Point to learn about the shellfish beds of the area. Then, from mid-October to mid-May, when the beds are open, for a modest fee to purchase a permit, Greenwich residents can enjoy the pleasures of recreational shellfishing.

The Greenwich Environmental Action Group, transcript with Lucy Man Jinishian, by Marian L. Phillips, July 30, 1975, and, Shellfishing in Greenwich, transcript of Interview with Lucy Man Jinishian, by Annette Baker Fox, March 21, 2006, are available through the Greenwich Library, Oral History Project, sponsored by the Friends of the Greenwich Library. The interviews are located on the first floor of the library and through the project office on the lower level.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Daniel V. Barrett, Teacher and Conservationist

In keeping with the growing season, we at the Oral History Project continue our focus this month on community leaders who have contributed to the protection of our environment:
Daniel V. Barrett
To paraphrase an old adage about teaching a man to fish, “If you want community members to preserve and protect their natural resources, teach them about the environment, and they will be stewards of the land and sea for a lifetime.” If teaching is the key, then Daniel V. Barrett unlocked the door to environmental stewardship for the thirty-eight years during which he taught and led the science department at Greenwich High School.
The results of his efforts continue to this day. Many of the students who passed through his classes went on to careers of their own in the sciences. Many of the properties today preserved in the Land Trust of Greenwich were acquired during his tenure as both executive director and environmental director of that organization. Much of the background work that went into making the Innis Arden Cottage Research Center at Greenwich Point was completed with his help and insight. These are but a few of the ways in which Mr. Barrett has made a lasting contribution to the environmental health of our town.
Dan Barrett was interviewed for the Oral History Project in December 2007. That interview was published as a book, Teacher and Conservationist in 2009, and in it Mr. Barrett makes clear his lifelong commitment to both the sciences, particularly marine biology, and to teaching.
In addition to teaching, Mr. Barrett headed up the Conservation Commission for a time and, with Lucy Jinishian and others, he formed the Shellfish Commission, which was officially underway by 1986. The purpose of the Shellfish Commission was to prove to the state that the waters were clean and that the shellfish were save to eat. After a period of at least five years, the beds were once again open, after having been closed since 1960.
How does a teacher impart to his students the importance of clean waterways? He appeals to their stomachs, of course. And that is just what Mr. Barrett did in his classes. Along with the customary lessons in bivalve anatomy, he taught his students the wonders of mussel stew, steamers, and oysters on the half-shell.
Dan Barrett with students
Additionally, he often took them to the Fulton Street market, to see all the stalls, to haggle over price, to buy the fish, and to fillet them. And then back at school, in the two ovens in his classroom, they would bake the fish. According to Mr. Barrett, “It was a whole experience of knowing about fish, and their requirements in the ocean.” In other words, once the students knew and appreciated this vital food source, they would be more aware of the need to protect their habitat.
Of all the inventive and innovative teaching techniques Mr. Barrett brought to his students over the years, he is probably most remembered for the development of the oceanography program at the high school. Built with his vision and the support of town benefactors, he was able to accumulate the equipment and supplies necessary to develop a program through the Educational Oceanographic Foundation, Inc. that would enable students to obtain a rich background in marine science—at the high school level. The program was so successful there were four teachers required to accommodate the demand.
Mr. Barrett’s hand can be seen to this day in many of the innovations he first envisioned. Before the Innis Arden Cottage at Greenwich Point, there was the Queen Anne Building, in the same location. It was, at the time Dan Barrett first saw its usefulness, in a general state of disrepair. He remedied that by appealing to the First Selectman, allowing the building to be outfitted with sinks and heat in the winter. As our interviewer astutely observed at the time, it was Mr. Barrett who got the Queen Anne Building “out of mothballs.”
In recent years that old building has been beautifully transformed, becoming the new home of the Seaside Environmental Education Center, spearheaded by the Greenwich Point Conservancy, in collaboration with the Conservation and Shellfish Commissions and the Bruce Museum.
In addition to oceanic conservation and education efforts, Mr. Barrett’s work by no means slighted the land. In 1986 he was recruited to join the Greenwich Land Trust, becoming the Executive Director shortly thereafter. At the time of the interview, the trust had a hundred and nineteen properties under its care, over six hundred acres of property. It owned Shell Island, had eighteen meadows, and five apple orchards.
Greenwich Land Trust apple orchard
Over the years, this much and more is still true. The Land Trust has continued to grow. Mr. Barrett was honored for his work and contribution in 2012, and shortly before that event, he told the reporter covering it of the importance of cherishing the land for the benefit of future generations. He then quoted Ansel Adams:
"Let us leave a splendid legacy for our children. Let us turn to them and say: ‘This you inherit; guard it well, for it is far more precious than money, and once destroyed, nature's beauty cannot be repurchased at any price.’"
Therein lies the legacy of Daniel V. Barrett, teacher and conservationist.
The Oral History Project book, Daniel V. Barrett: Teacher and Conservationist, is available through the Greenwich Library’s circulating collection and is for sale through the Oral History Project office, lower level of the library.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Conservation in Greenwich

We are in full spring finally in Greenwich, and since Earth Day is in April, we at the Oral History Project find our thoughts turning to the environment and to conservation. We have many interviews in our collection on these subjects by narrators who have worked tirelessly to preserve and protect the natural heritage of our town.

The first of our histories tracing efforts to safeguard the land and water of Greenwich is to be found in one of our published anthologies with interviews spanning the 1980s, entitled appropriately enough, Conservation in Greenwich. It is comprised of oral history interviews with citizen-conservationists, Eugene Curry, Anne Hubbell French, Barbara Kitchel Girdler, Howard Hennington, and Phoebe Milliken.

In the first interview, narrator Barbara Girdler describes the origins of conservation efforts in Greenwich. Going back to the 1940s, she cites the establishment of the Audubon Center, crediting it with the start of conservation education in town. “They started with birds,” she says, but soon discovered, “it’s all of a piece and they’d have to just look at the whole picture.”

In the 1950s the center became a liaison group with the garden clubs, soon beginning conservation work on Greenwich Point. At the time of the interview, 1982, members of the Greenwich Point committee were working on a master plan for which they had secured the blessings of the Parks Department.
Eagle Statue, Greenwich Point
Today the eagle has a nest on its top. The bronze eagle was originally placed in 1979

Other instrumental conservation efforts she cites include the opening in 1968 of the Greenwich Point Advisory Committee’s exhibition center, the state Coastal Wetlands Act of 1970, the Greenwich Environmental Action Group whose work began in 1970. (More on that to come.) These efforts and more formed the basis for laws and ordinances that guide the care and handling of our natural resources in Greenwich today.

The second interview in this collection is with Phoebe M. Milliken, conducted in 1986, about the Byram River Gorge Preserve.  Ms. Milliken begins with expressions of deep appreciation for the land, noting the native American Indians and the Quakers who long ago had stewardship of the land. Of the Quakers, who settled the lands of the Byram River in the 1700s, she says, “They knew very well where to place their houses, not down close to the river. They took the best advantage of where the sun rose and set and where the prevailing winds were coming from. They were not going to be caught in floods.”
Scene from the Gimbel Sanctuary

The intentions of those involved in the Byram River Gorge Preserve were to keep the land as preserved and protected as it had been under the care of its previous settlers. The key was to secure private lands into the hands of the Land Trust overseen at the time by the Greenwich Audubon Society. These early planners also included the Nature Conservancy in their efforts. One of the first land donations came from Mrs. Alva B. Gimbel. The Gimbel Foundation gave thirty-seven acres to the Audubon Society Greenwich Chapter in 1972.  John Fereri gave another forty-three acres in 1995. Today eighty acres of this land is called the Gimbel Sanctuary, connected to the Nature Conservancy’s Byram River Gorge Preserve to the north.

Another of the interviews is by a narrator with a similar love of the land, Anne Hubbell French, whose family had lived near the Mianus River Gorge for many years. Her interview on the Mianus River Gorge Preserve is co-narrated with R. Eugene Curry, who came to the project after its inception. As Ms. French tells it, the purpose of the preserve was “to set aside this land surrounded by the steep hills to be protected in perpetuity, forever wild.” She goes on to call the preserve a “wilderness island in a suburban sea.” While the land was to remain forever wild, it was not to be unavailable to the public. Instead, it was designed to provide hiking trails open to the public, the only restrictions at the time, “no picnics or dogs.” The narrators credit Gloria Anable, among other interested citizens, for having created the preserve, with work on the project going back to the early 1950s. The Mianus River Gorge was the first of the land projects of the Nature Conservancy.

In another interview, Howard H. Hennington (interview conducted in 1987) describes how the Greenwich Audubon Society of Greenwich went from being about birds only to contributing to the preservation of lands, such as the Byram River Gorge Preserve. Similarly, in an interview in 1982, Barbara Girdler describes how the Land Trust went from being under the auspicious of the Greenwich Audubon in the early 70s to later being set up as a separate entity, its purpose, too, to acquire private lands, mostly by gift. Today the Greenwich Land Trust has more than 737 acres of diverse woodlands under its care.
Greene Preserve, Greenwich Land Trust

In the final interview of the collection, Barbara Girdler focuses on what were in the 1980s ongoing efforts to ensure regulations protective of air, land, and water quality. She comments on the Audubon chapter and its educational programs, the garden clubs, the members of the Greenwich Point committee, all active and committed to the preservation of our natural resources. At one point she makes a distinction between those she calls “aesthetic conservationists,” who save things because they are beautiful and those who have come to appreciate “the oneness of nature.” She explains the concept thus: “It’s just all of a piece, and you mustn’t rend the fabric anywhere. You pull one thread, and the whole thing comes apart.”

Lucky for us, these early committed citizen-conservationists were of the second kind.

photo credits:
Greenwich Roundup
Greenwich Audubon
Greenwich Land Trust

Friday, March 7, 2014

Helen Meany Gravis, A Greenwich Olympian

The 2014 Winter Olympic Games are over, the medals have been counted, and fans of the summer games will have to wait until 2016 and Rio de Janeiro for their next infusion of Olympic fun.

If, in the meantime, though, Greenwich fans would like to delve into some local history, they can learn about Helen Meany Gravis, gold-medalist in diving at the Summer Olympics, Amsterdam, 1928. It’s a fascinating story, brought to our attention by one of two of our Oral History Project interviewers who sat down with Ms. Gravis over the course of two interviews in 1982 and in 1983.
Josephine Meany with Helen

Helen Meany, born December 15, 1904, in New York City, was a Greenwich resident from 1905 until 1930. She later spent time in India with the Red Cross, married in 1945, and lived on a ranch south of San Antonio, Texas, until 1957, when her husband, Harwell Gravis, died. While she enjoyed her time in Texas, she always considered Greenwich her true home. That is where she returned in 1958 and that is where she stayed for the remainder of her life.

Her recollections of Greenwich are more of water than of land. “I learned to swim before I could walk,” she recalls.

Before moving into the larger family home on Old Church Road and East Putnam, the Meanys lived in a house on Steamboat, with its own little beach. And across the road was the Indian Harbor Yacht Club, where young Helen also swam. Neither of these provided a true learning environment for the future Olympian, but they would suffice. She remembers winning her first meet when she was thirteen. By then, her father, recognizing her potential, had begun taking her to A.A.U (Amateur Athletic Union) meets.

She competed in swimming because she had no place to develop technique in diving, her true interest. She learned, however, by practicing off the dock, on top of a coalhouse, at Commodore Benedict’s home, across the inlet from their beach. Her father, more coaxing than coaching, would encourage her to take the plunge from his place in the waters below. She apparently would dive from anything he could find, high diving platforms being in short supply in the area.

Eventually, her father rigged a platform for her on the side of the yacht club. It was a makeshift float with a ten-foot board from which she would dive. Swimming in those waters was later stopped, being deemed too dangerous. Her practice sessions, as she describes them, were nothing short of perilous, with her climbing up to the board at the top, while below the float wobbled unpredictably as boats passed, coming and going out of the harbor, very near her landing mark.

“I guess if he told me to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge,” she says of her father, “I would have done it.” This is how the future Olympics gold medalist in the women’s three-meter springboard diving competition got her start.
William Meany, Helen's father

All the Meany children were swimmers. And there were a lot of them, eleven to be exact, counting Helen, the eldest. Ms. Gravis explains that because her father liked to swim so much, it was natural for the children to become swimmers, too. She remembers “having to pick up the little ones as soon as they could walk or they’d just run right to the water and right up to practically over their heads.” She also remembers that if, in the summer, her siblings missed the boat to Island Beach, they would simply dive off the dock at Indian Harbor and swim to the island.
Brothers and Sisters (minus one sister). Helen is sixth from left.

It was all just fun and games until, at a meet in Rye, New York, Helen Meany saw Alice Lord Landon (who later became an Olympic diver) dive from the ten-meter platform. That is when young Helen knew she wanted to be a platform diver. But the path from her childhood water exploits in Greenwich to the Olympics was not an easy one, since there were few or no diving facilities nearby. She remembers commuting from Greenwich to Manhattan Beach on the far end of Brooklyn to practice.
Helen Meany at Manhattan Beach

Later, as a college student at Wellesley, where there was not even a swimming pool, she had to decide on whether to continue her studies or to make the 1924 Olympic team. After having been eliminated in the 1920 games in the first round, she chose to try again and left college before graduating. She placed fifth in the ten-meter platform competition in Paris, 1924, and went on to win the gold in Amsterdam in the three-meter event in 1928.
Helen Meany with Martha Norelius, Amsterdam, 1928

One wonders how she did it, given the amount of training and coaching that goes into competing in today’s games.

“I learned most of my dives from a thirty-four foot platform, and if you don’t hit the water just right, you can get hurt. . . .So you just have to try it and try to correct it yourself,” she explains. And here’s the amazing thing: “I didn’t have a diving coach,” she adds.

Now there’s a champion for the record books.

Helen Meany Gravis died at her home in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, July 21, 1991. She was eighty-six years old.
Helen Meany Gravis in front of the former Meany home on Old Church Road, photographed by Karl Gleeson for the 1982-1983 Oral History Project interview 

The Oral History Project book, “From Greenwich to the Olympics: Helen Meany Gravis,” is available through the holdings of the Greenwich Library or can be purchased for $5 in the Oral History Project office, located on the lower level of the Library.