Liz Putnam hasn’t regularly roamed the Vassar College campus since 1955. Yet everyone here seems to recognize her.
“Hi, Liz,” a woman said matter-of-factly as the SCA founder stepped into the Alumnae House. The woman hadn’t been assigned to greet Liz. She was on her way out for the evening but happily engaged in several minutes of small talk before apologizing that she had to head off.
It would be like this for the next 48 hours.
Liz was invited to speak at a joint Vassar-SCA conference entitled The Conservation Leaders of Tomorrow. The event, held at The Environmental Cooperative at the Vassar Barns, was a mash-up of regional environmental organizations, community groups, educators, the Vassar College community, and local residents focused on conservation efforts in the Hudson Valley. SCA’s New York office recently relocated to the Vassar Barns so, naturally, that was her first stop.
The moment Liz saw the SCA sign on the window of the Vassar building, she stopped in her tracks. Her right hand involuntarily rose to her chest. “SCA has come home,” she whispered.
Just inside the front door, Liz paused to admire a large SCA banner before firing a gleeful fist through the air. “This was meant to be!” she declared.
If you’re not familiar with SCA lore, Liz’s senior thesis at Vassar proposed a “Student Conservation Corps” to assist underfunded national parks. She’d read an article by historian Bernard DeVoto who contended the parks were in danger of being “loved to death” by Baby Boom families. DeVoto wanted the Army to defend national parks. Liz had another force in mind: student volunteers.
After meeting SCA staff and posing for pictures, the conference beckoned. Liz took her seat among a panel of Vassar alumni, each of whom is active in the conservation field, and together they urged their audience of students and others to forge a more sustainable world. Liz related the challenges she faced as a young woman in the 1950s trying to convince a male-dominated National Park Service to give her idea a chance, and subsequent speakers cited Liz’s passion as a source of continuing inspiration.
That evening, Dr. Tom Lovejoy, one of the world’s leading voices on biodiversity, stated one reason why he remains hopeful about our environmental future is the fact that Liz continues to show so many young people the pathway to responsible stewardship.
The following day, Lovejoy was among four Ph.D.s on a panel that also featured SCA Marketing and Events Manager Ann Pedtke. Although the other speakers had more experience than their younger colleague, Ann had attendees marveling about her SCA service and how SCA is expanding the practice of conservation in urban communities through ConSERVE volunteer projects – in fact, Ann would have to exit the conference early to lead SCA Earth Day weekend projects in New York City and Washington, DC.
With the forum concluded, Liz set off on a quick tour before heading home to Vermont. Vassar’s new Science Building is known as The Bridge for literal as well as metaphorical reasons. As Liz arrived, she ran into Biology Professor Meg Ronsheim, who had sat in on the Conservation Leadership conference. Ronsheim insisted on escorting Liz, and as they walked the hallway, student after student gazed at Liz with a knowing expression. The reason soon became clear: at the end of The Bridge is a visual display featuring a handful of Vassar alumni working for the planet, including Liz.
From the Science Building, Liz proceeded to the A. Scott Warthin Museum of Geology & Natural History, named after the faculty advisor who encouraged Liz to pursue her thesis post-graduation. The museum staffer was both surprised and delighted to see Liz, and invited her to view a photo of Liz and Warthin hanging in an employees-only area. As they spoke, a passing professor also recognized Liz and stopped to chat.
A few minutes later, a student walking by slowed to listen in – she had interviewed Liz by phone last year for a school project and was astonished to see her subject in the flesh.
After handshakes, hugs and goodbyes, it was time to go. Liz turned to take in one last glimpse. “I wonder what Scott Warthin would say if he could see all this,” she said. “To see what SCA has become and see SCA here now on the Vassar campus.”
After another pensive moment, Liz wiped away a tear. “He’d probably tell me it was okay to be ‘leaky.’”
And then she was out the door.