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August 14, 2009

Marion Leonard, 1909-2009

MarionLeonard Living 100 years is in itself an accomplishment. But living every minute of 100 years with vigor, passion, intelligence and dedication to making the world a better place is an accomplishment of a higher order. Marion Leonard's life, which ended this morning in Randolph's Gifford Hospital, was one of the latter type. She was, and remains, an inspiration.

Marion's friend Cindy Kilgore was in touch with me over the past few days to let us know Marion was in the hospital and gradually transitioning to her next journey. "Please keep that positive energy out there," she wrote three days ago, "because when she decides to fly, stardust will flitter in the air!

Though I never had the pleasure to meet her personally, I feel as if I got to know her a bit. In part that's because of her prolific letters to the editor — generally on environmental and political issues. It's also through the article former Seven Days reporter Mike Ives wrote about her last May. That was part of a piece called "Aging Audaciously," in which we profiled uniquely admirable, activist seniors in Vermont. Marion, I believe, was the oldest of that bunch, and quite likely the sassiest. After the article came out, she and Mike stayed in touch. Then a recent Middlebury College grad, Mike quickly grew fond of Marion and told us what an honor it was to have met her.

Today, Marion's son Chris sent a copy of her obituary. Borrowing from it, I'll share a few highlights of her life.

Marion was born on May 24, 1909 — née  Boettiger — in New York City and grew up in Forest Hills. In 1931 she graduated from Pembroke College, where she met her future husband, Warren Leonard. The couple lived briefly in Seattle before returning to the East Coast during the Depression. That devastating collapse of the economic system had a powerful impact on Marion. She envisioned a type of education that could help secure a just and healthy planet.

In 1939, Marion and Warren moved to Vermont to join the staff of the new, progressive Putney School — Marion as librarian. Within two years she had cofounded the Putney Co-op, one of the first such food cooperatives in the country. They stayed in Putney 17 years.

In 1956 Marion and Warren were hired as librarian and headmaster, respectively, at the Storm King School in Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y. It was there Marion became involved in her first big fight-the-power action — literally. It was against a proposed Con Edison power-generating facility whose presence would have destroyed the environment around Storm King Mountain. A protracted legal battle finally resulted in defeat for Con Ed and the founding of the Natural Resources Defense Council by Marion's friend, attorney Stephen Duggan. The case is credited with launching the eco-activism movement in the U.S., and ultimately led to the passing of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Marion-3a copy In 1966 Warren became the first headmaster of the Hampton Day School, a progressive school in Bridgehampton, N.Y. Marion set to work creating its library. After five years, Warren was offered a one-year sabbatical in Rome. But the couple fell in love with Italy and traveling around Europe, and that year turned into nearly a decade. By the time they returned to the States, Marion was shocked by the development on former farmland in Long Island, not to mention plans for a nuclear power plant nearby. This prompted her to found the environmental organization Save Our World to fight the plant.

The plant never went online, but meanwhile Marion turned to letter writing to address issues of local and national importance. She believed deeply that the foundation of democracy resided in the people, and frequently bestowed her opinions on elected officials. "I think it is important in a democracy to be part of the community," she once wrote. "The only way to do that is to communicate with your representatives ... You have to keep an eye on them."

Marion and Warren returned to Vermont in 1997, settling in Rochester in the Park House, a senior residential facility. Re-energized by meeting more people of like mind in the Green Mountain State, Marion founded Save Our World-Vermont, which has sponsored teach-ins, environmental seminars, lecture series and more. And she became known as the woman who wrote more letters to the editor than anyone else. She called her representatives in Washington regularly.

Marion also became involved in her local community, attending select board meetings, establishing a collection of environmental advocacy literature for the library, creating a vegetable garden at the school, and, after Warren passed away, building a year-round greenhouse in his memory. At the age of 96, she was named Person of the Year by the National Organic Farmers Association-VT. When she was 98, we at Seven Days were pleased to make her a "cover girl" for the feature "Aging Audaciously."

Marion is survived by her two sons, William of New York City and Christopher of Sag Harbor, and her brother Edward of Rochester, Vt., along with numerous friends, admirers and fellow warriors. She, and her handwritten letters, will be deeply missed.

marion was such an inspiration! she was the real deal; a woman who worked tirelessy to make our world a better place. i met her at healthy living many years ago when she and warren came in for an early breakfast. i looked over and saw them (a very interesting-looking, elderly couple)and for some reason i felt compelled to introduce myself. we became very good friends...a truly remarkable couple. but Marion was the powerhouse and i admired her spirit for years. at her 100th birthday she was as sharp, funny and dedicated as ever. what a great lady!

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