Modest activist gives of herself to save so much Volunteer: Ajax Eastman has toiled energetically and effectively -- for free -- for decades to preserve Maryland's environment.

On The Bay

December 25, 1998|By Tom Horton JTC | Tom Horton JTC,SUN STAFF

MERRY CHRISTMAS, Ajax Eastman; also to Emily, your granddaughter, almost a year old.

My desk, as I prepare a tribute to your life in service to the Maryland environment, is awash with clippings and documents attesting to your decades of accomplishment.

From Assateague's beaches, to the legislative swamps of Annapolis, to the whitewater of Garrett County's Youghiogheny River, I've watched you in action for 25 years.

A few weeks ago it was my pleasure to see Maryland's government bestow upon you a singular award, the finest any environmentalist could hope for.

But what I may remember longest is this: arriving a couple weeks ago at the big, old, welcoming white house on Lake Avenue, finding you intensely occupied by your latest project -- 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. day care, three days a week, for Emily.

You said the two of you have been "researching" the different shapes of leaves falling from all the trees in your yard this fall. Emily has been "pretty darn interested," you thought.

You barely had time to change clothes and get off to your big award ceremony, which you could attend for only a couple hours before you had to go do something or other for your church.

It was all so very typical of how you've given so much, with little fanfare, for decades, full time, and for free.

Others have been more eloquent, more visible, more recompensed, more honored. But no one has more endured or mattered than you, sitting in hearing after hearing, knitting from that big ball of yarn, waiting to testify on everything from the phosphate detergent ban to Gunpowder Falls State Park.

(Knitting needles aside, you could mix it up with the best of them. I always liked that term you reserved for certain, corporately hired scientific experts: "biostitutes.")

All the dedication came, you said, from a love of outdoors instilled by summers in camp in the Maine woods that began when you were not many years older than Emily.

That was where little Alice, from Johnstown, Pa., became "A. J.," became "Ajax the Mighty," and soon just Ajax -- and your legendary Greek warrior namesake never labored so nobly.

You first surface in the Baltimore Sun library in 1967, as Mrs. Thomas B. Eastman Jr., chairwoman of the Junior League's Santa Claus Anonymous Campaign, baking cookies and sharing with readers your old family recipe for Banbury tarts.

"No white gloves?" That is what they joked in 1970 when you showed up, representing the league, at formative meetings of the first modern, statewide environmental organization, the Maryland Conservation Council.

But the Junior League gave you excellent leadership training and, by 1976, you began the first of your six terms as MCC's president. In addition, for 18 years you edited MCC's legislative newspaper, the Conservation Report, the best way to keep up, week by week, with what legislators are doing to and for nature.

MCC was spread thinner than you liked to let on, a coalition of numerous "committees," some having only a handful of active members. But each backed the others, representing virtually every environmental issue in Maryland.

The result was that you all became experts -- or as expert as most -- on everything from nuclear power to beach erosion, and clear-cutting to energy conservation.

MCC was a full-time job for you, and yet not half of all you did. From 1971 until last summer, you were a board member of Maryland Environmental Trust, which has preserved more than 50,000 acres through conservation easements, and is the second-largest such trust in the East.

For 13 years you waged a frustrating campaign for a deposit on beverage bottles to make them returnable. Residents supported by as much as 72 percent, but industry lobbyists, as many as 26 in a single legislative session, always defeated it.

The last year of that, 1984, you spearheaded a "walk across Maryland" to gather support, walking from the West Virginia line to Annapolis yourself.

With four days rest and "big blisters," you then left for one of six Himalayan treks you have made to Tibet and Nepal with the Mountain Institute of Spruce Knob, W.Va., where you have led outdoor courses for many years.

The MCC today is not quite so prominent, as groups with professional staffs have blossomed and state agencies have expanded their environmental roles.

This is all to the good, but I know you sometimes feel as if you and the many women who were the backbone of MCC are the end of an era.

About coming up at a time when women like yourself did not expect paid careers, you have no regrets, except you would major in botany instead of art if you could return to Connecticut College for Women (now coed).

Your volunteering was more all-consuming than any paid staffer would put up with for long. Typically, you prefer to talk about "all the compensation we got visiting all the special places we were trying to save."

Such self-indulgence got you a unique award this month.

Since 1988 you co-chaired, with mentor Beth Hartline, MCC's Maryland Wildlands Committee.

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