Lou Ismay and the Environmental Forum

by Tom Ellis

ALBANY, NY: On August 21, Lou Ismay completed the lecture he began in April about his experiences teaching and leading the Environmental Forum course at the University at Albany beginning fifty years ago.

Lynne Jackson introduced Lou saying Lou’s office was in the Arts building. Lou hung strings from the ceiling connected to manila folders with the names of the many Forum guest speakers. Lynne happily recalled the cookie jar in Lou’s office that held large cookies. The jar had a giant lid that allowed Lynne to reach in and lift cookies from the jar without breaking them. Lynne said many founding Save the Pine Bush members met at the Environmental Forum.

Lynne recalled the Waterways Project of 1973-1974 when a dozen students surveyed the Mohawk River. They visited Moss Island with its fascinating “pot hole” rock formations. Lynne and Paul Stewart (now with the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region) made a film about the formations. Moss Island was saved when a NYS Thruway exit ramp originally proposed to be built on the island, was instead built across the river near Little Falls. 

Lou said he spoke so fast in April that he could not decipher from the recording what he said. He said the Environmental Forum began with the help of Ed Carey in the Arts Department, the forum had no textbooks or pre-organized materials, and when appointed to lead the Forum, he was on the verge of taking a position in the mid-West. 

Lou said the first Protect Your Environment (PYE) club at the university was soon formed Academic and student programs shared the same office, frustrated NYS government employees provided many of the tips the students acted on, and projects could involve one, several or many people and continue for a semester or several years. (PYE was student led and funded from student fees. PYE ran Earth Week.)

One project involved documenting ambulance visits from GE in Selkirk. “You can’t just go on rumors,” Lou insisted. A student project resulted from cement dust landing on cars at a car dealership in Ravena.

The Times Union and Knickerbocker News sent reporters to Lou’s office at least weekly.  Times Union columnist Barney Fowler, who, Lou said never wrote anything good about the university, liked the idea of three trails (one to be used, one recovering from past use, and a third on standby) in the Adirondacks.

The Sierra Club wanted to know what the Environmental Forum was doing, and details of Lou’s program were included in the club’s first Earth Day publication, leading to considerable publicity and calls from all over the world. Lou also moderated a three-hour environmental radio program. Lou said the initial one-semester and experimental Environmental Forum program was quickly extended and nearly became a cult.

Lou hoped others would learn from and avoid errors he made. Among the major mistakes Lou recalled were not having any historian document the work of the Environmental Forum, filing was not kept up, and not having enough on-campus publicity about what the forum was doing. Another mistake was not having students present during a recycling hearing at the state legislature when a faculty member wanted them there. Lou also forgot to tell a faculty member how tall trees planted on the uptown campus podium would grow.

Among the many benefits of the four hours per evening course format (a guest speaker the first hour, a sit-down dinner the second hour, and a two-hour give and take between students and the guest speaker) is that some students learned table manners, and how to set a table for a formal meal. During the first year of the forum, the university paid for the dinner food but not thereafter. Lou said he tried to have a meal with each student and each student was expected to peruse a double major such as geography and science. 

Lou said he hoped to study all the waterways in New York, a grant financed the program for three years, and another grant for $90,000 was appropriated by the state legislature but never received. The program was canceled even after Arthur Godfry [American radio and television broadcaster and entertainer, 1903-1983] promised he would support it financially if maintained. Another wealthy man was also interested in financing the program. 

In perhaps his most important insight, Lou said the way for faculty and students to work together successfully is via trust, respect, a sense of community, creativity, and serendipity.

The existence of PCBs in the upper Hudson River (between Troy and Fort Edward) was a tightly kept secret until students found an inter-agency memo they were able to make public in Sports Illustrated magazine. Lou said the forum exposed how the route of I-88 (between Binghamton and Schenectady) was known to some people who bought land along it and later profited from selling it, before hearings were held to discuss and finalize the route. 

Lou showed a copy of the book [Pine Bush: Albany’s Last Frontier] Don Rittner [author and historian] wrote while a junior in college. Lou said copies of student reports were sent to funders but he is not sure if they were sent to libraries. He hopes to investigate some day.

Lou said his office was not tidy; soup, cookies, and cakes were often in abundance, and his office was always open. Considerable work was done at night, some files are in the university archives, but no university library expressed any interest in storing files. Lou said all fellow faculty were great save one, and, at one point, he was the third highest paid lecturer in the State University of New York system. Lou said no one ever evaluated his work, and one dean cut his salary by 1/3 in each of three consecutive semesters. Lou believes the animosity came from that “we did not fit the mold.” 

Russell Ziemba said many projects are now located in the M.E. Grenander Archives, located at the Univeristy of Albany. 

Lou said the Environmental Forum lasted eight years, he spoke often with parents about their students’ projects, and he remains disappointed at the “somewhat unfair treatment” he endured. He said the forum assisted with the first Stockholm international environmental conference.

Published in October/November 2019
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