Departing Head Scrapbooks the SEJ Life

September 1, 2016

A Remembrance


At SEJ’s annual conferences for the last 25 years, Executive Director Beth Parke has seemed ever-present. In Roanoke, Va., in 2008, she was there when Rajendra Kumar Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (right) conversed with attendees, including the late environmental photojournalist Gary Braasch (left). Photo by Kate Lutz

I’ll be packing up the SEJ office in coming months.

Complete sets of SEJournal will go to J-schools. Some files are destined for the shredder, others to storage.

Another box, headed home, will hold some favorite photos: Batman, a.k.a. Don Hopey, at a Pittsburgh 2004 conference podium; my mother, Helen Parke, in a Utah parking lot holding a billboard of SEJ tour names and bus numbers; a postcard of Rachel Carson in 1951, near harbor and boat, in a ball cap with binoculars, ready to lead an SEJ dream tour. Another box, destination unknown, will contain the SEJ corporate seal, checkbook and all that goes with it, addressed to SEJ’s next executive director.

I haven’t decided what to do with my trove of envelopes that once contained grant checks long ago spent for SEJ programs. I admit it. I’ve kept them for encouragement. Like the ceramic and possibly magic money beads on my desk, provided by Amy Gahran, SEJ employee #1, year one. “These are faces of people who will be supporting SEJ,” she said.

She was right, and that’s really the magic. There are so many good people who absolutely get it about SEJ and always will. Thanks for being among them with your membership, your donations and your volunteer time. It’s been my honor and privilege to represent SEJ and marshal these resources over the last few decades as SEJ’s executive director.

Assignment: Memories

I’m on assignment for SEJournal now and the topic is memories. If you’ve ever had such an assignment, or indulged this particular style of reverie, you know how that word, “memories,” is stunningly inadequate. Eyes closed, I find myself in a rapid fire 3-D time-travel mind’s-eye scrapbook of SEJ experiences, complete with ticket stubs, autographs and a beer cartography of the U.S.

Damn! This scrapbook has a lot of sections! Here are a few:

It’s 1995, the MIT conference. International journalists have joined us. E.O. Wilson and Al Gore speak today. Also E. Bruce Harrison, whose promising PR career began with attacks on that same Rachel Carson. Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior, misses out on lunch when students policing the lunch line turn him away for not having a ticket.

We scheduled the panel on airborne particulates in the Twenty Chimneys room. SEJ staff always did have a sense of humor! We’ll need it on Sunday at Walden Pond when we are wiping soda can condensation from a table that dates from Thoreau’s time.

Next I’m on a sidewalk in St. Louis in 1996. SEJ buses are puzzling the tourists. They are looking for a bus marked “Gateway Arch.” Ours are marked “Dioxin Town” and “After the Bomb.”

Next I’m in a series of labs, control rooms and study sites with journalists and scientists. Here they are taking the census of ant populations, here we are looking at real-time data from power grids across the country. I’m peeking into a cloning lab, looking at sensors in an experimental forest. Hey, there are some specimens collected by Darwin over there in that temperature-controlled robotically accessed filing cabinet.

Now I am saying hello, one at a time, to a very large number of people named Cousteau.

Here I am in Roanoke asking Wendell Berry if I might please give him a hug. He signs a book of his poetry for me: “Given.” “Communicate slowly. Live a three-dimensional life,” it says.

I’m on the phone now. Conference Chair Wevonneda Minis is returning my call from atop a fire tower.

Next I’m paying a few bills. One of them is to reimburse Marla Cone for dog sled rental, her research transportation for a book, “Silent Snow,” with SEJ her fiscal agent. The phone interrupts. It’s a radio listener. “I heard the name of your organization on WNYC-FM. Tell me about your work.” Over the next eleven years, his family contributes $200,000+ in general support.

On the phone again, this time I’m calling Kevin Carmody’s cell phone with a conference question. He’d left it in his front hall. His wife answers. Kevin is missing. The memory of that day is not one that I like to revisit, but you know I always will.

Fortunately I have other, sweeter memories of Kevin to crowd that one out most of the time. He’d worked so hard to arrange that Austin conference. There we all are in stitches at the Driskill Hotel, surrounded by all that dark wood and leather, while Molly Ivins is speaking. I can still hear her punch lines. We’ll miss her too.

Faces of those missing

I can see the faces, hear the voices of other remarkable people we’ve loved and lost: Steven Schneider, Mike Dunne, Gary Braasch, Clem Henriksen, Brenda Box, David Stolberg, others.

But over there, beyond them, I see some people who will meet through SEJ and get married, and a line of others whose work will bring them acclaim, change the world and lift environmental journalism up to permanent status, permanently valued.

My next call is with Mark Schleifstein at The Times-Picayune. It’s Tuesday August 30, 2005, and the storm surge of Katrina is rising. “I have to go,” he says. “They're evacuating the building. We’re boarding delivery trucks, heading to Baton Rouge.”

I’m ordering some gifts now: A pillow for Mark Schleifstein, who will not be sleeping at home for quite a while. Breakfast baskets for conference chairs, who may be facing post-conference depression; a protection rune talisman for Dale Willman who is packing for a year in Southern Sudan. [Flash forward, please, to 2016. He’s home now.]

It’s 2013 and I marvel at the SEJ conference team as Dale, Chris Bruggers and Jay Letto run the length and width of the Chattanooga Convention center about four hundred times. Chris has been with me in this SEJ thing from the get-go. Jay predates both of us. Dale, Cindy MacDonald, Randi Ross, Kevin Beaty have come along since. But today it’s show time again. So very many moments like this to recall.

Turning the page

Oh no, this scrapbooking project is suddenly on overload! Pull back the vantage point, to one of those matrix shots with 26 screens, factoring out to the faces of thousands of people, in conference rooms, buses, boats, boots and kayaks. With notebooks and microphones.

SEJ has an educational mission and I’ve been a beneficiary as SEJ members have explored and covered hundreds of environmental issues and public service journalism has endured and changed and made a difference, one story at a time.

There’s that slogan on the newspaper box. “It’s how you know.” Over there, Joe Davis’ EJToday and message streams from SEJ-TALK are running on my mind’s eye Times Square-style news crawl.

I am overwhelmed in here, so much more where that came from. I raise my arms in surrender. I will never do anything else all day, possibly ever, if this keeps up.

Snapping out of it, I’d better make some coffee! I still have a whole lot of work to do for SEJ this year and through transitions to come. Turn the page.

Beth Parke was hired by SEJ’s founding board in September of 1992 and steps down as executive director in early 2017. With equally long-serving conference director Jay Letto and associate director Christine Bruggers and other staff she raised and managed several million dollars in program and operating budgets, for annual conferences, regional tours and workshops, SEJ awards, listservs, website and social media feeds, print and electronic publications, Freedom of Information WatchDog project, diversity initiatives and coverage grants from the Fund for Environmental Journalism.


* From the Fall 2016 SEJournal.

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