Lou Ismay and the Environmental Forum

by Tom Ellis

  One of the things I teach my students is that each of us can learn a lot from our elders, especially those who lead rich lives filled with interesting activities.  With that in mind, several months ago I asked Lou Ismay to speak at a SPB dinner which he did on November 14.

Lou was introduced by Jackson Davis, who had taken the Environmental Forum course Lou taught at the University at Albany.  Jackson said when he showed up for the first class, he was surprised and very happy that his former Boy Scout troop leader, Lou, was the instructor.  Jackson said Lou required each student to come up with a project and carry it through.  Jackson created an environmental bibliography. 

Lou is a long-time member of Save the Pine Bush and a Citizens’ Environmental Coalition board member.  Lou discussed the environmental studies program he led at SUNYA in the late 1960s and much of the 1970s. 

Lou said the course was interdisciplinary and inter-university.  The class was open to SUNYA and other students from nearby colleges, as well and high school and elementary students, and community members.  The course had three requirements: to attend class, have a project, and analyze why the project was or was not successful. 

The class met for four hours or longer – one evening from 4 p.m. until midnight – once a week.  The first hour was to share a meal.  Senior faculty met with students each week.  One guest speaker later told Lou that SUNYA was the only college he had visited in the United States where students were eager to learn.  Lou developed a list of 200 mentors whom students could work with. 

Many whistle-blowers from the public and private sector offered him tips of projects that needed research.   Lou said classes were sometimes filmed by unknown persons who scanned the entire audience; surveillance was a concern.  Ralph Nader spoke at a “secret meeting” held at Albany Law School with the lights out about his vision for PIRGs. 

In 1969, what soon became a nationwide Protect Your Environment (PYE) network or college student groups was formed by women students at Rowayton, CT.  This group was well developed by the first Earth Day in 1970.

Topics covered in his Environmental Forum included philosophy, environment, and technology.  At the first class each semester, students were asked what they wished to learn and then speakers/teachers were sought who could teach it.   Students from the prior semester were invited to attend the first class the following semester; they told the new students what projects they had worked on.  Often the new students picked up and continued a project; sometimes the projects were continued for years by a series of students.  Lou said the Environmental Forum “was intended to empower people to perform high quality research, [to] do something useful for society.”

One project led to the first wetlands study of Albany County that became a template.  Tobin Packing Co. called Lou demanding his students end their Tobin research.  Lou told Tobin he had no control over the students.  Tobin was later fined for a violation of  a refuse provision contained in the 1899 federal Rivers and Harbors Act.   Lou said students researched the General Electric facility in Selkirk for several years; they interviewed nearby farmers and tracked each ambulance that was called to the factory. 

Lou said when the university eliminated the Environmental forum, it was one of 107 programs terminated.  Lou never found out why his course was terminated but has often wondered if it was political pressure from powerful corporations investigated by the students.  Others told him it may have been because he did not publish, nor is he a Ph.D.  Lou said he was never a professor, but an instructor, and had never been on a tenure track.

Lou said Jackson Davis made the first bicycle path through Albany.  A “Basketball Game” play was written; it was a metaphor about the mistreatment of Native Americans.   A sculptor, Guido, built a fountain in the university’s environmental office that people gathered around for a year having great conversations until Guido took his sculpture.  Hot water was always ready in the office for coffee, tea, and soup.  The Environmental Forum and PYE often overlapped.  One student created the first land ownership map of the Pine Bush.  Recycling programs were started on the campus.   Students investigated the Atlantic Cement Co. in Ravena leading to legal action.  Don Rittner wrote The Pine Bush: Albany’s Last Frontier, while a junior at SUNYA.

Lou showed photos of  a “young lad [John] Wolcott.”  He said students cleaned trash including old cars, refrigerators, and stoves from the Pine Bush.  The Air National Guard used a helicopter to lift heavy items from remote locations.  For two summers, students rented a houseboat, went out on Lake Ontario where they took photos and air samples.  Lynne Jackson was on one trip.  Lynne* prevented the NYS Thruway Authority from paving a ramp across Moss Island, saving the island.  Lou said he made two mistakes with the program; not notifying university officials who the guest speakers would be and not videotaping the classes.  He said the Environmental Forum was on the local newsbeat of area reporters who often stopped by wanting to know what was going on.

During the Q&A, Lynne Jackson said she was on both boat trips in 1973 and 1974.  “My formative years were at the forum,” she said.  “Save the Pine Bush came out of the forum.  Lynne described Moss Island as a mystical place “where hobbits would live.  It was so beautiful.”  Lynne made a film about Moss Island now available on the internet.  

Lou said students went to the Rensselaerville Institute several times to hear Isaac Asimov speak.

Sylvia Barnard said, “It was an exciting then to be at the new campus with its young faculty, that has now been lost.”

Carol Waterman referred to the 1970s purge when many programs were eliminated.  A student of hers said the university was “firing the living, those who empowered people, those who taught students to think.”




Published in January/February 2013 Save the Pine Bush Newsletter