I Sit And Look Out: Columnist’s environmental work started as city employee

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Half a century ago, I was editing the weekly newspaper in Forest Hills when I was offered an appointed position in the city government. It was for the post of secretary in the Department of Air Pollution Control. I was still a “wet behind the ears” kid.

“Secretary to the department” sounds impressive, no? It meant being the public relations person for a new and small government agency, which had been the Smoke Control Unit in the city Department of Buildings. The inspectors and engineers had been in that Unit. The commissioner, Dr. Leonard Greenburg, was a new person in city government. He was both an engineer and a medical doctor and brilliant. So was his hand-picked deputy commissioner, Sylvan L. Hanauer, a civil engineer who had been active in the Citizens Union, a highly respected community organization. I learned a great deal from both of them.

I was, believe it or not, third in command in the department and could demand that communications addressed to me be sent to “Hon.” Big deal. Since I was appointed, my salary depended on a yearly budget review and, despite Greenburg’s and Hanauer’s efforts, it stayed the same for the close to six years I worked for the department. As usual, the city was stingy with bucks where it could be.

I enjoyed the work and it was a great department. Everyone was working in a brand-new field, after all. Air and water pollution control were new ideas. The world was waking up to the havoc the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath were doing to our air and water.

On one occasion, I was asked to speak about our work to a group in another state. We accepted every chance to spread the word about the need for action. After my talk, one of the members of the audience came up to me and said something like, “You know, you sound like an environmen­talist.”

Now, I love words, but that was — at the time — a new one, believe me. I took it as a compliment and I still do. I do not know whether I deserved the comment then or in the following years, but I have tried to be aware of the world we live in and help where I can to keep our planet a healthy and beautiful place.

I recall one then-famous environmentalist — I believe it was Ian Nairn — saying that when confronted with the enormous task of helping keep the planet clean, “Pick a corner near you and do something about it, to make it better. That will help the world.”

It is still true, of course. I was reminded of this in June, when I saw this item in the AARP Bulletin. I take the liberty of quoting it in full:

“Green on the Prairie. A trio of Benedictine sisters — all age 50 plus — are the masterminds behind the nation’s ‘greenest’ building. Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton, Wis., recently received the highest Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design platinum rating ever: 63 out of 69 points for sustainability, energy efficiency and choice of materials. The building has bamboo flooring, solar panels and windows oriented to maximize sunlight and prairie views. ‘People wonder why such a small [three-member] community would do something like this,’ says Sister Mary David Walgenbach, 71. ‘But we are charged to tread lightly upon the earth.’”

Sister Mary David and her two sisters are true environmentalists in spirit and action. I wish them a most happy Christmas and New Year. I know that in their joy they will, indeed, tread lightly upon the earth we all share.

Happy holidays to all!

Updated 6:23 pm, October 10, 2011
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