Wednesday, August 4, 2010, by Nicole Gaudiano, Free Press Washington Writer
WASHINGTON — In 1955, Elizabeth “Liz” Putnam proposed having student volunteers help maintain national parks for her senior thesis at Vassar College.
She received an A.
Wednesday, after spending more than 50 years making her proposal a reality, the Shaftsbury woman received one of the country’s top civilian honors.
Putnam, 77, who founded the Student Conservation Association, was among 13 men and women who received the 2010 Citizens Medal from President Barack Obama in a ceremony at the White House. She won the medal for “performing exemplary deeds of service for her country and fellow citizens.”
Selected from 6,000 nominees, Putnam is the first conservationist to receive the award, according to the Student Conservation Association.
“I am so humbled by this incredible honor,” Putnam said. “But I share this honor with all the young men of SCA whose hands-on service protects our public lands.”
SCA places high school, college and graduate students as interns and volunteers at national parks, where they protect endangered species, restore habitats, build hiking trails and help maintain parks in other ways. Up to 12 percent of the National Park Service’s workforce trace their professional roots to SCA, according to the organization.
Obama said the medal winners are remarkable for the “determination they share to right a wrong, to see a need and then meet it, to recognize when others are suffering and take it upon themselves to make a difference.” Putnam shook hands and chatted with Obama on stage in the East Room while receiving her award and posing for pictures.
Established in 1969, the medal has been awarded to public figures — including former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former GOP Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas — and to “everyday heroes,” including a washerwoman who left her life savings to establish a scholarship fund. In presidential honors awarded to civilians, the medal is second only to the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
This year marks the first time a president has opened the nomination process to the public. In January, Obama sought nominations for people who might not be known nationally but whose work significantly affects their communities. This year’s winners all were nominated by their peers.
The first SCA volunteers arrived at Grand Teton and Olympic national parks in 1957. More than half the 60,000 people who worked for the group remain active in conservation efforts in their careers and communities, according to SCA.
Putnam previously received President Ronald Reagan’s Volunteer Action Award and other honors. But she said she was “completely blown away” by the Citizens Medal and “thought there was some mistake” when told she had won the award.
Putnam now works as an ambassador for the program, teaching young people “that it’s up to all of us to do something.”
“If we have life, we have a responsibility,” she said.
SCA’s mission — connecting young people to nature and building new generations of conservation leaders — is especially relevant today, Putnam said.
“From climate change to the tragedy in the Gulf, our environment needs our help more than ever,” she said.
Contact Nicole Gaudiano at firstname.lastname@example.org.