John V. Kabler, 53, regional director of Clean Water Action

August 04, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Almost as much as he loved nature, John V. Kabler enjoyed a good fight. He reveled in organizing people to advocate environmental causes and in working behind the scenes in political campaigns and lobbying drives.

Mr. Kabler, regional director of Clean Water Action, battled prostate cancer even as he continued to fight for protection of Chesapeake Bay and Florida's Everglades. He died Thursday at his Annapolis home. He was 53.

Mr. Kabler was one of Maryland's leading environmental activists, credited by friends and associates with helping to build the state's loosely organized community of conservation groups into a powerful force.

His organizing and lobbying skills played a key role in passage of most of the state's major Chesapeake Bay legislation in the past 15 years, including the ban on use of phosphate detergents, nontidal wetlands protection and the Critical Area program limiting waterfront development.

In recent years, he helped build a similarly influential coalition in South Florida to push for restoration of the Everglades.

"He was a true grass-roots citizen soldier," said Gerald W. Winegrad, a former state senator from Annapolis and longtime friend.

Born in Baltimore, Mr. Kabler attended private and public schools in Northfield, Mass., and Baltimore County. He earned a bachelor's degree in English literature in 1967 from the University of Virginia and a master's degree in psychology from Antioch College in Columbia.

He became an environmental activist in the late 1970s in the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in Pennsylvania.

Working at the time as a psychologist counseling families on drug abuse, he joined a local anti-nuclear group when he heard of plans to discharge a million gallons of radioactive water from the disabled plant into the Susquehanna River, the Chesapeake Bay's major tributary.

"Something just snapped in my brain and I said, 'No!' " he said in an interview published in April in the City Paper.

Mr. Kabler's organizing work in the successful effort to block the wastewater dumping drew the attention of David Zwick, the head of Clean Water Action. The Washington-based environmental group hired Mr. Kabler in 1980 to set up an office in Maryland.

In that role, he organized and launched a small army of door-to-door canvassers, who would seek to inform and arouse the public about environmental issues. He forged ties with organized labor and nurtured the development of other activists.

"He wasn't a policy wonk," said J. Charles "Chuck" Fox, an assistant state secretary of the environment who was a fellow activist in the 1980s and early 1990s. Mr. Kabler believed that "there were plenty of good ideas, but what was needed was the ability to organize," Mr. Fox said.

Among the groups Mr. Kabler helped launch was the Maryland Waste Coalition, a group of South Baltimore and northern Anne Arundel County residents that staged protests in the early 1980s to clean up landfills and polluting companies in their neighborhoods.

"He was my mentor," said Mary Rosso, the coalition's president. "We did everything together, all our demonstrations."

Mr. Kabler also helped create the Maryland League of Conservation Voters in 1982, which endorsed political candidates on the basis of their environmental stands. The group's first test was Mr. Winegrad's campaign for the state vTC Senate, in which he beat a better financed Republican opponent with Mr. Kabler's aid.

In recent years, Mr. Kabler expanded his efforts to Virginia and Florida. In helping build support for restoring the Everglades, he also forced Florida sugar farmers to help pay for the cleanup.

He was honored by the Izaak Walton League as its conservationist of the year and this year received a citation as Admiral of the Chesapeake from Gov. Parris N. Glendening, whose election he also aided.

Though dedicated to his cause, Mr. Kabler was a warm and sensitive person, his friends recalled.

"He would say, 'Well, if you're not feeling good about this, I can share your pain,' " Mr. Winegrad said.

Mr. Kabler's fight for the environment continued even in his final months, as his strength fluctuated because of his illness and therapy.

"He was working on Tuesday," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, Maryland director of Clean Water Action.

Despite his illness, Mr. Kabler found time for the outdoors,

including a trip to India and Tibet last year and closer-to-home excursions by sailboat, canoe and kayak.

He is survived by his wife, the former Cassandra Hutchings; a daughter, Lauren V. Kabler of New York City; a son, Michael J. Kabler of Cabot, Vt.; his parents, Hugh E. and Carol V. Kabler of Claiborne; and a brother, Donald Kabler of Easton.

A memorial service will be held at 10: 30 a.m. Friday in the Blue Heron Room of Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions in his name to Clean Water Action, 1320 18th St. N.W., third floor, Washington, D.C. 20036.

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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