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Pioneer Lisa von Borowsky, 97, dies

She helped found the Hernando Audubon Society and was instrumental in many of the county's conservation projects.

By DAN DeWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 17, 2001


She helped found the Hernando Audubon Society and was instrumental in many of the county's conservation projects.

BROOKSVILLE -- Lisa von Borowsky, a pioneering environmentalist and the last living connection with one of the most intriguing chapters in county history, died Monday. She was 97.

"Lisa was one of the key people in the state, as early as the 1940s, who was advocating the protection of natural areas and the conservation of birds and wildlife," said Charles Lee of Florida Audubon.

"If you had to make a list of the top five in significance, she would have been near or at the top of that list."

She helped secure the property for the National Birds of Prey Center in Maitland, Lee said. She advocated the creation of the Chinsegut Nature Center, which is on 408 acres formerly owned by her employers and good friends, Col. Raymond and Margaret Robins. She also donated more than $30,000 for the building there.

Her last gift was Ahhochee Hill, the 300-acre parcel west of Nobleton where she lived for the past several decades. This land has been donated to Florida Audubon and will be maintained as a wildlife sanctuary, Lee said.

"She's a very outstanding lady. She's a very outstanding conservationist and has been for most of her life," said Steve Fickett, who, along with von Borowsky founded the Hernando Audubon Society about 40 years ago.

Though she became famous statewide as an environmentalist in the 1950s, she had been well-known locally since the 1920s because of her association with the Robinses.

Ms. von Borowsky was born in southern Germany and moved to New Jersey with her family after World War I, she said in a 1992 interview. She wanted to work outside and applied to a job placement service with the YWCA in New York City in 1922. Mrs. Robbins, who was a nationally known advocate of women's rights and labor organizations, hired her to work as a housekeeper at their estate, Chinsegut Hill, north of Brooksville.

Mrs. Robbins later promoted von Borowsky to oversee the gardens on the hill, and they both worked to cover it with exotic species -- including the stands of bamboo that still grow there -- as well as roses, camellias and azaleas.

"Mrs. Robins always wanted flowers, flowers, flowers," Ms. von Borowsky said in 1992.

The Robinses were known in the community for their famous friends, including Thomas Edison and U.S. presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, and generally well-liked, said Eddie Money, who recently retired as the manager of Chinsegut Hill Conference Center, now owned by the University of South Florida.

But the Robinses -- and von Borowsky -- also created animosity for what were then considered radical ideas, Money said. They prayed and ate with black employees. Also, one of Col. Robins' high-profile friends was Vladimir Lenin, in whose honor he commissioned a bronze plaque and placed it under a large oak on his property.

"She was not exactly a Hernando County-type person who lived back in the woods," said Money, who formed a friendship with von Borowsky in recent years.

"She was very articulate and very sophisticated. She was fluent in four languages and she did a lot of reading."

Because of the vague communist association, some people in Brooksville labeled von Borowsky "that mean Russian lady," Money said. "I don't know where she got that, because she wasn't Russian and she wasn't mean."

Besides donations of land and money for environmental causes, Money said, she helped the Robinses distribute Christmas presents and Easter goodies to poor families in Hernando County.

She bought a house for one longtime employee of Chinsegut Hill. She paid for the nursing home and medical bills of another man who worked both at Chinsegut Hill and Ahhochee Hill.

But her deepest love was for nature.

When she worked for the Robinses, she nursed injured wild animals. She kept the windows to her room at Chinsegut open so birds could fly in and out, she said in 1992. During the summers, she traveled with the Robinses to Maine, where she slept in the woods, hiked and kayaked. Later in life, at Ahhochee Hill, she fed birds and the large population of deer that lived there.

Visitors were welcome, Fickett said in an earlier interview, as long as they recognized their place: "On her property, wildlife comes first. Man is a very distant second."

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