Wednesday August 4, 2010, by Neal P. Goswamim
SHAFTSBURY -- Elizabeth Cushman Titus Putnam became the first conservationist to win the Presidential Citizens Medal Wednesday at a White House event with 12 other 2010 award winners.
The longtime Shaftsbury resident received the honor -- the second-highest civilian award in the country -- in an "awe-inspiring" ceremony Wednesday with President Barack Obama.
Putnam was honored for her lifetime commitment to conservation. "I am so grateful, first of all, to President Obama," Putnam said. "He said, ‘My administration believes very deeply in conservation.'"
She launched the American conservation service movement more than 50 years ago when she founded the Student Conservation Association in 1957. Putnam proposed in her 1955 Vassar College senior thesis that the Civilian Conservation Corps format be adapted to enlist student volunteers to assist with upkeep at national parks, where surging visitation rates were outpacing maintenance budgets. Aided by a colleague, Putnam's idea caught the interest and support of the National Park Service and the first SCA volunteers arrived at Grand Teton and Olympic National Parks in 1957.
"I didn't know what I was envisioning. I just knew that work needed to be done and what better way to be doing it then enlisting the help of young people?" Putnam said. "I just felt that help was needed. It's a win-win situation. A person gets involved with the land, and when you're involved with the land, you're giving of yourself. Both benefit."
The group, which has grown steadily over the years, looks to build "the next generation of conservation leaders" by engaging high school, college and graduate students in conservation service, SCA spokesman Kevin Hamilton said. Putnam is credited with inspiring thousands of people to partake in conservation work, he said.
Former President Richard Nixon awarded the first Citizens Medal in 1969. It was established to recognize American citizens who have performed exemplary deeds of service for their country or fellow citizens. Obama chose this year to recognize Americans whose work has had significant impact on their communities, but may not have garnered national attention. The White House called on members of the public to nominate people in their lives who have performed exemplary deeds of service.
"What unites these citizens -- what makes them special -- is the determination they share to find a wrong and right it; to see a need and meet it; to recognize when others are suffering and take it upon themselves to make a difference," Obama said of the 2010 winners. "These honorees' lives stand as shining examples of what it means to be an American. And today, we have an opportunity to tell their stories; to say thank you; and to offer them a small token of our appreciation."
More than 6,000 nominations were received and were pared down to 13 winners. There are now 97 American citizens who have received the award, including boxer Mohammed Ali and actress Elizabeth Taylor.
"To be a citizen and to be invited into the White House and to have the opportunity to see the inside of that incredible building ... and then to receive that incredible award makes one feel so blessed," Putnam said following the White House reception. "I just feel so, so fortunate to have this opportunity and this honor. Man, am I humbled by it. It makes we want to do more in whatever way I can, for our community, for our state, for our earth."
Hamilton said the group places students all over the country to work at protecting endangered species, restoring habitats and building hiking trails, among other activities. Some members are currently working to restore beaches along the Gulf of Mexico that have been damaged by oil.
"Really, there's nothing that can be done within the conservation field that our members don't contribute to," Hamilton said. "I don't know of anyone that is more deserving of this award than Liz."
Putnam remains an ambassador for the program, Hamilton said.