STEVENS POINT — A citizen activist most of us have never heard of was inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame last month.
Aroline Schmitt was a Milwaukee woman who was tireless in her efforts to preserve and restore what was left of nature in Wisconsin and the world as she did her work in the early- and mid-20th century. That she worked at a time when women in the conservation world were few makes her legacy all the richer.
Schmitt's induction, along with three others, pushed the total number recognized by the Hall of Fame to 99. Also inducted were Scott Craven, the longtime UW-Extension wildlife specialist and educator who may be best known for his frequent appearances on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Larry Meiller Show, and the late Don Johnson, an outdoors and environmental writer from the old Milwaukee Sentinel. Johnson comes from a line of beloved Wisconsin journalists in that tradition that includes Jay Reed, Gordon MacQuarrie and Mel Ellis. Schmitt knew and pestered those journalists over a period of time from the 1940s to the '70s. They were on the long list of contacts for causes she embraced.
I wrote her biography for the Conservation Hall of Fame in the early part of this century, and it wasn’t easy. She didn’t take the time to memorialize herself or keep a bio up to date. But she did leave six big archival boxes of her work with the Wisconsin Historical Society. The story that emerges from these thousands of pieces of correspondence is of a woman who was fearless, persistent, demanding, informed, respected and, if needed, charming. Presidents and congressional representatives, timber moguls and members of the Wisconsin conservation community were her correspondents, usually replying to her prodding.
Remarkably, she did most of her work from a bedroom in Milwaukee, where she was homebound because of illness for many years. And, those six boxes notwithstanding, one Milwaukee newspaper article said the telephone was her main weapon. Family members recall her telling her children to hush because she was on the phone with then-Gov. Gaylord Nelson.
Schmitt came from wealthy stock in New York. She was trained as a nurse, but shortly after she moved to Wisconsin as a young woman — apparently on her own — was pegged at the start of World War II by Gifford Pinchot, the father of the U.S. Forest Service, to be a timber cruiser. He was a family friend. Imagine this woman face-to-face with a timber owner, telling him the government wanted his trees for the war effort, and you get an idea of how she steeled herself for conservation causes.
And the causes were many. She was associated with various conservation groups, but in the end, she was a citizen activist, working alone in her bedroom.
For activists who get impatient at the pace of change, Schmitt’s work is a reminder that worthy struggles take time, but success is within reach. Schmitt died in 1995, but her legacy is alive today in her successes. To name a few, they include sustainable forestry, the Flambeau River and Porcupine Mountains wildernesses, the national refuge system for migratory birds and banning the pesticide DDT. You can read more about this remarkable woman at the Conservation Hall's web site.
Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org
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