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[AP photo/Miami Herald: Al Diaz]

Grand dame of the Everglades

By CRAIG BASSE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 15, 1998


Marjory Stoneman Douglas, grande dame of the Florida Everglades and the state's pre-eminent conservationist, died at her Miami home Thursday. She was 108.

"The years caught up with her," said William T. Muir, a lawyer and family friend.

Douglas died in her Coconut Grove home of 72 years. As she requested, her home will be turned into a state museum and her ashes will be scattered over the portion of the Everglades National Park that bears her name in a public ceremony on May 23.

Some of the nation's most powerful figures remembered her Thursday.

President Clinton, recalling when he awarded her the Medal of Freedom when she was 103, said she was ahead of her time.

"Long before there was an Earth Day, Mrs. Douglas was a passionate steward of our nation's natural resources, particularly her beloved Florida Everglades," Clinton said in a statement from Germany.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich said, "Today, we remember the founding mother of the Everglades -- a strong woman who devoted her life to saving that which she loved, her "river of grass."'

Attorney General Janet Reno, a former Dade County prosecutor, said: "She was one of the truly great ladies of the world. Even at 100, she would sit on my sister's porch and talk about the 'glades."

A writer and crusader for Florida's environment before World War II, Mrs. Douglas was best known for her 1947 book, The Everglades: River of Grass.

She decried in its pages the more than half-century of human tampering with the saw grass prairies and swamps of South Florida that make up the Everglades. And with that, she reminded readers of what was being lost.

"There are no other Everglades in the world," she wrote. "They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the Earth, remote, never wholly known.

"Nothing anywhere else is like them: their vast glittering openness, wider than the enormous visible round of the horizon, the racing free saltness and sweetness of their massive winds, under the dazzling blue heights of space.

"They are unique also in the simplicity, the diversity, the related harmony of the forms of life they enclose. The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slow-moving below, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades of Florida.

"It is a river of grass."

Slowed by blindness, hearing loss and other health problems, Mrs. Douglas spent recent months resting comfortably in the modest home she built for herself in 1926 in the Miami neighborhood of Coconut Grove.

That's where she was last December when she did not attend a celebration of the 50th birthday of Everglades National Park. As part of the observance, Vice President Al Gore announced a $133.5-million land purchase that would help restore the fragile ecosystem.

Despite her failing health, Mrs. Douglas remained passionate about the Everglades, once thought of as worthless swampland that needed to be drained to feed South Florida's real estate boom. The Everglades now is recognized as the area's fragile lifeblood.

In recent years, state and federal governments have authorized multimillion-dollar projects to help restore and protect what remains of the area, including a 1994 state law called the Everglades Forever Act. In Washington, Republicans have joined Democrats in backing federal aid for the Everglades. Still, drought and pollution, particularly runoff from the region's sugar farms, have continued to keep the long-term fate of the region in doubt.

In 1996, Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment that held polluters as being primarily responsible for Everglades cleanup.

"The good thing is that she lived long enough to see the restoration of the Everglades rise to the top of the national agenda," said Clay Henderson, president of the Florida Audubon Society. "And so we've come too far now to be able to turn back."

Florida Sen. Bob Graham recalled Mrs. Douglas' visits to Washington, where she "conveyed one simple, blunt message: We would safeguard the health of the Everglades, and if we didn't, we would all spend an uncomfortable afterlife in hell."

It was Graham, as governor of Florida, who launched the state effort to save the Everglades, the second largest national park in the 48 contiguous states. Mrs. Douglas recalled being in Tallahassee in 1981 to see the Department of Natural Resources' 10-story headquarters be named after her.

Graham "said a thing of me that's true and it doesn't embarrass me," she told the Miami Herald. "He said, "She is an articulate and literate woman who's done more to teach the people of Florida about the Everglades than anyone else.' "

The significance of her book "is that it proved the Everglades are actually a river, a river of grass," Mrs. Douglas once said. "That is the key to understanding the area."

A brass plaque in Everglades National Park acknowledges her as the originator of the phrase, "river of grass."

She saw the river in the slowly moving water, ranging from a few inches to several feet in depth, flowing south through the forbidding saw grass. And she warned not only of the loss of the natural paradise: "If you drain the Everglades," she once said, "South Florida will not have a source of drinking water."

She was considered the authority on the Everglades, which dominates the southern third of Florida and is home to plants and animals found nowhere else.

Mrs. Douglas, the "Grandmother of the Glades," as a presidential citation described her, was honored in 1987 by then-Gov. Bob Martinez and the Cabinet as a Great Floridian. She was inducted Feb. 1, 1993, into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.

Gov. Lawton Chiles said Thursday that Mrs. Douglas was "a prophet who called out to us and inspired us to save our environment for our children and grandchildren."

While her book on the Everglades was perhaps her best known work, Mrs. Douglas also wrote Hurricane, Road to the Sun, Freedom River, Alligator Crossing and The Key to Paris.

Late into her life she remained a person of remarkable vitality, although failing eyesight limited writing or traveling. She dictated her autobiography into 50 cassette tapes.

Titled, Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Voice of the River, the autobiography, with John Rothchild, was published in 1987.

Briefly married in 1914, the Minneapolis native had lived alone in the quaint house she built from plans a friend sketched on the back of an envelope.

A visitor to her home once described her as a 5-foot-1-inch woman with white hair pulled back in a French twist and none of the looks of a troublemaker.

Yet Mrs. Douglas was a crusader from that day in 1915 when she stepped off a train from New England with her Wellesley College education into the frontier atmosphere of Miami. She had come to join her father, Frank B. Stoneman, editor and founder of the newspaper that became the Miami Herald.

Of her father, she noted in her autobiography: "He had that Quaker sense about women which is different from the usual Protestant attitude. Quakers made no distinction between men's and women's minds; they didn't think that minds had any particular sex to them. My father never doubted my intellectual ability."

At the Herald she honed her writing skills while teaming with her father in campaigns against slum lords. She joined an interracial committee pushing for an ordinance requiring toilets and running water in all houses.

She also founded the Herald Baby Milk Fund, the first charity in Miami not supported by a church. With milk was delivered information about birth control.

In 1916 she traveled to Tallahassee in a fruitless effort to persuade legislators to support women's suffrage. The Legislature did not ratify the 19th Amendment that year.

She remained with the Herald until 1918, then went to Europe to handle publicity for the American Red Cross until 1920. After returning to the Herald until 1923, Mrs. Douglas devoted herself to writing short stories and fiction for national magazines, including the Saturday Evening Post, and teaching at the University of Miami and Pennsylvania State College.

Although she published a play, The Gallows Gate in 1928, The Everglades: River of Grass was her first book, and she had not planned to write it.

While at work on a novel, she was approached by Hervey Allen, who was the publisher of a series of books about America's rivers. He wanted her to write about the Miami River. Although she questioned the idea of devoting an entire book to the Miami River, she would later recall, "it would be foolish to let a publisher just walk out of your door."

How about a book on the Everglades? she stammered. Allen liked the idea, but he had given her a tough job.

No comprehensive book on the Everglades had previously been written, she found, although she knew of an abundance of descriptive writing. The year the book was published, 1947, President Harry S. Truman dedicated Everglades National Park.

That same year, she recalled, the Army Corps of Engineers "signed a contract to drain the Everglades." The corps later sliced up the area with pumps and levees, canals and floodgates, all aimed at taming the river of grass.

In the following years, Mrs. Douglas, made famous by her book, which has sold almost a half million copies, preached against the engineers, warning of the consequences of their work.

She was a member of the Author Guild, USA, and the Society of Authors, Great Britain. She held honorary doctorates from the University of Miami, Florida Atlantic University and Queens College in Charlotte, N.C.
-- Information from Times files, the Associated Press, Orlando Sentinel and the Lakeland Ledger was used in this report.


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