When John Cronin, the original Riverkeeper, jumped into his custom-built, 26-foot boat back in 1983 and began looking for polluters on the Hudson River, he wasn’t convinced his actions were practical, and he wondered just how much impact he might actually have.
“There wasn’t a little voice in the back of my mind, asking me what I was doing,” remembers Cronin. “It was a big voice, shouting at me, ‘what the heck are you doing?’ I was hoping to make a difference, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I was in a position that had been created by a bunch of fisherman. I had no real authority to do anything.”
Thirty-five years later, Cronin is a Senior Fellow at the Dyson College Institute for Sustainability and the Environment at Pace University on the Hudson River just north of White Plains. His connection to the river and his advocacy for our environment goes back to 1973 when he met Pete Seeger in Beacon on the western shore of the Hudson. Cronin’s long battle to protect the environment and New York’s waterways, and his close connection to Seeger, the legendary folksinger and activist, will all be part of the discussion when he delivers the keynote address at “Writing the Watershed,” a literary arts festival being held Friday through Sunday at the Schoharie River Center at 2025 Burtonville Road in the Montgomery County town of Charleston.
“When I speak at events I try not to get too far ahead of myself,” said Cronin last week from his office at Pace University. “I could hear something on the radio that day and I could make that my whole speech. But usually I talk about how the waterways, especially the Hudson and the Mohawk, played such a vital role in the history of our country. The human story is the story of rivers. It’s where American industry was founded, where commerce started, and it’s how we all started heading west.”
Much of Cronin’s story is told in the book he and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. collaborated on in 1997, “The Riverkeepers: Two Activists Fight to Reclaim Our Environment as a Basic Human Right.” He
grew up in Yonkers, thought about being a lawyer, but after “one unsuccessful year at college” dropped out and became a peace activist.
“I got very politicized in my teens and by the time I was 18 I had been trained by a Quaker organization to do draft counseling during the Vietnam War,” he said. “I was telling people who had been drafted what their rights were. Then i spent three years traveling around the country before coming back to New York.”
Cronin had a number of odd jobs in his travels before returning to the New York City area and becoming a roofer. In 1973 he met Seeger and got involved in his organization, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., a group the folksinger created back in 1966 to fight pollution of the Hudson.
“He was looking for somebody to help him build a dock in Beacon so he put out a call for volunteers,” remembered Cronin. “We ended up spending weekends together building his dock. I wasn’t really a folk music fan back then, but I figured we might have some of the same political views. You don’t spend time with Pete or get to know him without getting involved. Working with him those weekends was like being at a concert. He’d just start yodeling or break out in song and then throw in these little homilies between songs. Then he started telling me how he was going to clean up the Hudson River.”
While he initially thought Seeger was biting off a bit more than he could chew, Cronin eventually joined the cause and became just as dedicated to saving the river as Seeger. An avid fisherman much of his life, Cronin knew the river, and when the Hudson River Fisherman’s Association hired its first full-time Riverkeeper, Cronin was its man. What he didn’t know was that his first day on the job would garner the attention of a national television audience.
“We got a little publicity in the New York Times right before I started, and then NBC and Charles Kuralt found out, so on my very first day I have this camera crew with me,” remembered Cronin. “I also had a state trooper friend who had told me about these enormous oil tankers that were discharging their smelly, oily water right into the Hudson, and on that very first day, with the NBC camera crew, I came across this huge tanker discharging water right around Kingston.
“So I called the captain on the radio and asked him what he was discharging,” continued Cronin. “He asked me, ‘under what authority are you asking me?’ I asked him, ‘under what authority are you discharging?’ He said, ‘Exxon International.’ I thought to myself, ‘who am I to be questioning this international company?’ But that’s when I realized the necessity of this position, and then we had stories all over the country about it and it really put the program on the map. Eventually we stopped the polluters and made a real difference. It all started with an idea and there were people willing to act on it. We really turned it into something spectacular.”
After 17 years as Hudson Riverkeeper, Cronin stepped down from that position but not before being recognized by Time Magazine as “Hero for the Planet.” In 2000, he began working as a Senior Fellow in Environmental Affairs at Pace University, as well as serving as director and CEO of the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries at Clarkson University.
The success of Riverkeeper, meanwhile, has spawned similar organizations all around the country and worldwide, and in 2015 the group added the Mohawk River to its watch list.
“Riverkeeper is a member-supported watchdog organization dedicated to defending the Hudson River and its tributaries,” said Leah Rae, a spokesperson for the group. “Our patrols now extend along the Mohawk and the Upper Hudson, and down to New York Harbor. It has become the model and mentor for more than 300 organizations worldwide, which are part of the umbrella organization, Waterkeeper Alliance. Riverkeeper has helped to establish globally recognized standards for waterway and watershed protection.”
That pretty much falls right into line with what the Schoharie River Center has been trying to do since John McKeeby started the not-profit group in 1999. It’s mission “is to instill a love for learning, arts and science, promote the values of stewardship for our local environment, and encourage the positive and responsible involvement of youth in their communities.”
A literary festival to help celebrate 20 years of providing educational programs to the community – including the award-winning Environmental Study Team for ages 13-18 – seemed like a natural outgrowth of his organization to McKeeby.
“As we’ve been studying the Schoharie watershed and the Mohawk watershed since 2000, we’ve become more and more aware of some of the local writers who have lived in this area,” said McKeeby, who is a psychologist by training and had worked with at-risk youths in Schenectady County. “We realized there were a lot of people who had written about life along the Schoharie and the Mohawk. Right here in Duanesburg we have the Christman family, who promoted literacy and reading, and we have a group of gentlemen poets. It’s interesting to see how people have looked at and written about the watershed, so this seemed like a great idea.”
The Schoharie River Center is located on the western shore of the Schoharie Creek. While it’s mailing address is Esperance, it’s more precise location is a small unofficial hamlet called Burtonville, where the counties of Montgomery, Schenectady and Schoharie all come together. Along with a 20-acre nature preserve on the water, McKeeby’s facility includes the David Remling Science Center and the SRC Cultural Center, formerly the community’s old Methodist Church.
The festival begins at 7 p.m. with a workshop on memoir writing by Helen Condon of Parishville up near the St. Lawrence River. Condon wrote “The Big Rug,” a story about dealing with the death of her husband of 33 years. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where she got a MFA in Creative Writing, Condon will continue her workshop on Saturday at 10 a.m.
Cronin will give his keynote address at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Cultural Center, while other writers offering readings and workshops include naturalist Mary Cuffe Perez of Galway, radio personality and author Bob Cudmore of Scotia, Mohawk storyteller Kay Olan of Saratoga Springs, storyteller Joe Doolittle of Glenville and poet Daniel Bowman Jr., a native of Mohawk, New York and currently assistant professor of English at Taylor University in Indiana. There will also be a “spoken word” performance featuring Souly Had at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“This will be my first time at the Schoharie River Center and I’m really looking forward to it,” said Cronin. “Preserving all these stories about the Hudson and Mohawk is very important to me, as is checking our water quality. I would like to be able to tell all these writers that I’ve planned my career, now 45 years this fall, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s been an accidental career, with twists and turns, just like the story of rivers.”
‘Writing the Watershed’
WHAT: Workshops and presentations about writing stories related to the Mohawk River region
WHERE: Schoharie River Center, 2025 Burtonville Rd., Esperance (town of Charleston in Montgomery County)
WHEN: Friday through Sunday; Keynote address by John Cronin will be at 3 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: Keynote address and “spoken word” performance are free; check web site for other events
MORE INFO: Visit www.schoharierivercenter.org