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Ruth Lofgren

INTERVIEWEE: Ruth Lofgren (RL)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: February 14, 2006
LOCATION: San Antonio Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Melanie Smith and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2328 and 2329

Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers correlate with the time codes on the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.

DT: My name’s David Todd. I’m here the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s February 14th, 2006 and we are in San Antonio at the home of Ruth Lofgren and we’re going to have the good chance to visit with her about her interest and training in microbiology and in science, in general, and science education and in the creation of a wonderful preserve and educational program at Mitchell Lake and many other things that she’s done for the conservation effort here in San Antonio. And I wanted to thank her for taking time to talk to us. I thought we might start by talking about your childhood and I understood that you grew up in Utah during the Depression and I was curious if you can tell us if there are any incidents or people, mentors in your early life that might have introduced you to the natural world and a curiosity and love of it. Anything come to mind?
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RL: Oh, I think I was one of those lucky people that was born feeling that the natural world was my world. When I was a tiny child, probably a year, year and a half old, we had a big rainstorm up in this mountain town in Utah—Huntsville, where I was born—and after the rainstorm, there was a beautiful rainbow and I went out into the yard—and my parents tell me—raised my arms in the sky and I said thank you, thank you because
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this was my rainbow and I knew that the whole thing was—the whole of the planet was my—my special world to live in. And my parents were very supportive of my exploring and did the best they could in identifying the beautiful little buttercups in the marsh behind the house. And then as my little brother and a little sister came along, we were a nice little family that loved exploring nature. And my father went on a Mormon mission up to the Northwest and my parents had decided that it would be better if my mother, with the three little children, moved down to Salt Lake City. So we lived with my
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grandparents, my mother’s parents, and—while my father was away. And then we moved out to a suburb of Salt Lake, a little town, Butlerville, at the foot of Big Cottonwood Canyon, where we had a 20 acre orchard and 6 acres around the house and a wonderful opportunity for just playing in the oak brush and the sand dunes. So the natural world was part of who I was as a child.
DT: I think you told me earlier that not only were you enjoying the natural, but you were curious and kind of fearless about it. That there was a story when you were, what, 18 months old about your exploring a little bit? Can you tell about that?
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RL: Yes, there—the marsh behind the house up in Huntsville had what looked like stepping-stones to me. They were little hummocks of grass out into the mud. And I had walked out, step by step, until I was, oh, few hundred feet out into the marsh and, of course, these hummocks wouldn’t support an adult. So when my parents saw that I was out there, my father talked me back to step on this one and this one and this one. He talked me all the way back to sound—or—or firm soil. And never any scolding or terror
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or anything, they just said—took it for granted that I would be able to follow directions and—and come back safely. But it all seemed like a perfectly natural part of my playground.
DT: I think you’d also mentioned once that, I’m not sure which stage in your early years this was, but that each of you and your siblings had a garden. And I though that was a such a wonderful kind of a little production for each of you to have, something to tend and grow and raise. Can you tell about that?
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RL: Well, we had general chores so that when my father pruned the orchard, we would all haul the prunings and then have a big bonfire. But around the house, we had six acres that we could d—divide up among us and all five of us had gardens. My section was between the front door and the mailbox that was out at the street. And it—it ran down along the side of the h—driveway. I had iris planted between the path and the driveway and the—roses, some of them were moss roses along the hillside that went up on the east side of the path. My parents had been irrigating from the beginning of my life on the
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property that they’d had, so I knew about building an irrigation ditch along the iris bed, but it was much more sensible to water the roses one at a time. And so, it—it—when we—our water turn came, I could run the water down by the iris bed and they always grew consistently and beautifully with so much sunshine and hot, dry weather.
DT: You mentioned your father and I understand that he was a water master in Utah and also an inventor of some water measurement devices and I gather was very conscious of life in the desert and how precious water could be. Can you talk a little bit about his…?
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RL: My father had a civil engineering degree from the University of Utah and had been also educated to be a teacher. That he was a civil engineer who came into this little town and the people there felt so dependent upon the water, irrigation that they had coming out of Big Cottonwood Canyon. But they trusted him completely because he knew math and he—he knew engineering. So he was the water master that divided up the amount of water that they had. So that he’d divide the amount of time that each person got this stream that was flowing out of the canyon. And then he also recognized that it takes water time to run from one person’s gate to the next person’s gate. So he—they had running time and then they had their water turn, and then running time and water turn. And the people were very appreciative of his skill at doing this and trusted him. He also recognized that a great deal of the water was being lost in this sandy soil
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between the h—different head—head gates and so he talked them into building concrete lined flumes between one head gate and the next and helped them build it. And also recognized that it would be u—used much less concrete if they made hemisphere shaped ditches. So he made molds that they could make the concrete lined ditches that were like canoe shaped all the way down the—the stream. Also he helped them construct a reservoir and build the pipelines to each of the homes so that where people had had to carry water from the front ditch, they now had water piped into their homes. So he—he was a real community leader in Butlerville.
DT: And I understand that both your mother and father were involved in the cooperative movement in your community, is that right?
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RL: Well, one of the treasures, as I look back on it, was the Depression times that I was raised in. And during then, there were a lot of farms that had been foreclosed on. There were people who were unemployed. And my father started a co-op for—or worked with a group for a co-op where the men would go down to the coal mines and get loads of coal and then bring them up. And my father’d get orders for the coal for various households. And it was ans—astonishing because apparently Americans don’t understand co-ops because these people would haul the coal until they had enough money to buy what they needed and then they wouldn’t fill the orders so that my father would have—have to coax them to go down and—and get more coal in order to fill the orders
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that he had for the coal. So both he and my mother had worked very hard on this. My grandfather also had worked with the Mormon co-op and found that most people, as soon as cheaper stores came in town, the—the customers would go to the cheap stores and the co-op was failing, so my grandfather would buy out the other members of the co-op. And for some strange reason, in an area where you’d think co-ops would be flourishing, they never did get a really substantial hold.
DT: Tell us a little bit about the time that you were growing up. This is the Depression.
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RL: In the—in the early 30’s, actually much of the farming and the early period in Salt Lake City was submarginal anyway, so that farms had a great deal of difficulty just meeting their mortgages and taxes. But when the Depression was really at its most severe in the early 30’s, my mother was working with the neighborhood ladies and they would have childcare seminars. They’d have ways to remodel clothing so that you could have hand-me-downs that could go from one child to the next child and be as conserving of what little wealth they had. And we just took it for granted that everyone had to make the best of situations. It would never occur to you that you would have grapes or fruit out of season, but that you always bottled the—or preserved the fruits and vegetables in your garden in the summertime so that you had, in the basement, stored f—food for the wintertime. And it was a—it—looking back on the—the last ten years, I would say, it looked much more like pioneer days when you had to take care of yourself and plan ahead.
DT: Do you think that there’s a kind of ethic about being modest and frugal about your life that you’ve carried with you since those days?
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RL: Oh, it’s made life so much simpler for me because I set such a—a modest standard for what is survival level. When I came to San Antonio, I knew that I wanted to work in the little Quaker school, but the sensible thing, when I saw how high rentals were, was to buy a house. So I looked around and found a place that had a large backyard, facing south so that I would get good sun exposure, and that would be modest enough that if I really didn’t fit in here, this didn’t feel like home, that I could just walk away from it. So I bought a modest little place and it turned out to be just exactly what I
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needed. And the people who I worked with later, who lived in elegant parts of town, just accepted that as who I am. So it’s been no handicap to me, but it’s not an elegant address, but it’s a very practical one and in a very heterogeneous neighborhood that is very comfortable for me.
DT: Something else I thought was interesting about your upbringing is that you’re from a Mormon culture, but you had a very strong scientific training. So there’s always been this kind of ambivalence to your life, where you had a curiosity about the natural world, but a pretty strict religious upbringing. And I was wondering how you balance that through your life.
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RL: Well, when I was a child, I lived in what was an idyllic world where, in Mormonism, there’s such a child-centered culture that you can do almost anything you want, but the limits are just taken for granted. Of course, there’s the word of wisdom, with no smoking, no drinking, no drinking alcohol or tea or coffee. But also the Golden Rule of being kind and generous and the Ten Commandants of don’t lie and steal and so on. And so the framework was a very comfortable one as a child. But when I began having questions about some of the teachings that seemed so literal, where you have to
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think about a God of body parts and passions, when my God needed to be something that enclosed all of the natural world and the kind of mysteries that I would feel when I would see rainbows or beautiful mountain scenery and it just didn’t feel right to me that it had to be so literal and so structured. And the sensible thing was for me to move into the framework of science and explore things and look at them in detail, understand how they operate. And it was very puzzling to me that you could be an intelligent female and yet, on Sunday, someone would tell you that females had been graced with the privilege of having children and so men were given the priesthood as the equivalent reward and that God spoke to people through the men, through the priesthood. And that if a woman wanted to know something, she could ask a man. Well, by the time I was ten years old, I
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already knew that there were a lot of stupid men on the planet and I could never respect a God that would speak to a stupid man before they speak to me. And so it seemed obvious that—that somebody misunderstood, that that was not the way it should be. And since many people were happy with the interpretation that many of the Mormon officials had, I saw no reason in trying to rock the boat, so I would make a bargain with the bishop or with the superintendent of Sunday Schools. When I was teaching Sunday School, I would never teach anything they didn’t believe, but I would never teach anything I didn’t
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believe either. And the officials were very comfortable with that. Of course, I knew that they saw me just as a woman. I just a girl, what difference did it make? But to me, it made a big difference. And it still left a great deal that we could discuss—the Mormons crossing the Plains and the life of Jesus and so on, so that it wasn’t as if it cramped our style at all. But that way, I could go on with the putting off limits some of the things that really couldn’t make any kind of sense to me at all. And so I was very comfortable with moving forward and studying the natural world and seeing that there was a great deal of
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puzzlement on how things worked. And the more I discovered in biology, the more things were interrelated and how important it was for us to see the community that’s established among all living things on the planet.
DT: Well, maybe this would be a good time to take—you talked a little bit about your upbringing and both the sort of economic times and some of your religious grounding. But through it all, it seems like you had a curiosity about the scientific study of the world and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about going to the University of Michigan in 1940 and your exposure to natural sciences and to microbiology, in particular. And maybe if there were any particular mentors that were a great help.
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RL: Well, I think the strongest mentor in this general field of education was my high school chemistry teacher. He was just marvelous in challenging us to learn about the importance of chemistry and one day in class, after he had—we’d had a long discussion over some issue, he said oh yes, we’ll know. When we drive through the countryside and we say Doctor Lofgren’s Little Liver Pills written on the side of some barn, we’ll know who Doctor Lofgren was. And I know he was teasing me and the class all thought he was picking on me, but I knew that it was very flattering. That I loved chemistry and
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so by the time I got to the University of Utah and took the placement exam, I was put in the very top group of chemistry students. I didn’t understand what was going on. They were such geniuses in there that the teacher had big loops in the logic that was going on and I couldn’t follow them at all. It—they weren’t talking chemistry, they were talking some kind of theory. So I went to the chairman of the department and said please move me down a couple of classes because, of course, at the university, they had maybe half a dozen different sections of the beginning chemistry class. Well, by the time I was down in two or three levels below, I could understand it. They were talking chemistry. So I had no illusions about being a genius myself, I knew genius have flights of fancy that I
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can’t follow. But I loved it and it made very good sense because I knew that everything on the planet was made up of atoms and molecules and now I was beginning to understand how they interact with each other and how critical it is that the conditions be just right if the complex molecules are to survive. And like those of our bodies that have to maintain who we are and give us the equipment that allows us to have the capacity to think and to hear or to feel.
DT: Did you get a sense that the Earth was an unusual kind of combination of conditions that made life possible? What did you take from what you just said?
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RL: Well, the thing that’s so interesting to me is that when you grow up in desert country, you see the responsibility of providing environment for—for instance, you need water as a component of life. And all you have to do is to forget to water your garden for a week and Mother Nature takes care of deciding which plants are the strongest and have the capacity to survive and which ones are dead and they’re going to have to be replaced. So that we know that individual differences show up as stress comes from living in a very severe environment. And I think that was a beginning in my understanding of how individual organisms vary and in the amount of damage that comes from not getting what they need. And also the importance of the whole environment in providing the environment that particular individuals would need. Why there’s going to be a difference in the sort of plants that grow in the desert from those that grow in the tropics or in very rainy areas.
DT: When did you decide to move on from a study of atoms and molecules and sort of the makeup of the nonliving world and focus more on those chemicals that have become part of the living world, of the microbiological world?
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RL: Well, the—I think the part that I ha—I haven’t mentioned yet that I was one of the people in the neighborhood who knew how to take care of accidents. And so I loved first aid and I was the—well, of course, I was the oldest child in our family, but also in the neighborhood. If somebody had a really messy accident, I could help them get cleaned up before they went home and told about it or in to talk to my parents about it. One time my brother chopped his finger open and I put the skin back together and bandaged it up after cleaning it up and the doctor the next day said I—you did as well as I
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could’ve done. Of course, then he put some stitches in to help hold the skin together. So I had the impression that the in—intelligent thing for me to do was to become a doctor. And when I was in my third year at the University of Utah, the dean of the medical school, who was an old friend of my dad’s, called me in and said you’re a good student so we’d be happy to have you as the—a medical student, but let me tell you what’s it like to be a doctor. When your—when they’re sick and you tell them what they need to do, ha—take an aspirin every two hours and stay in bed and you see them going into the movie downtown and then when they’re better, they won’t pay their bills. He said it
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won’t take you six months to be in research. You’ll never put up with that. I—I know you well enough to know that you’d never stand for that kind of misbehavior. So why don’t you just go into research directly? Well, he happened to be the chairman of the bacteriology department at the University of Utah as well as dean of the medical school. And so he took my transcripts and I’d been taking 19, 20 hours a semester. He just said this course is equal to that, this one is equivalent to that and so on and ended up with saying that the next year, I could graduate as a senior in microbiology with 16 hours
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toward my Master’s Degree. So I did and then I did my Master’s on immunology and the host-parasite relationship. And my chairman, who was a—a specialist in bug types, had written around to his friends at the various universities and said I have a student here that I think should go on to graduate work. Do you have scholarships available? And so one day he came in and he said University of Michigan—there are several other universities that would have their places, but it was the—Michigan was the first microbiology department in the country. The chairman of it, Fred Novey, had studied with Salk and
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Pasteur in Europe and I think that would be the best place to go because Novey is—he’s retired, but he’s around a lot and I think that you’d get an excellent background. It—the department is in the medical school so that it’ll be a specialized microbiology. But I think this is good. So I went to Michigan and had a marvelous time working on rash and fever and then on the study of the finer structures of microorganisms with the electron microscope. So we had face contrast microscopes and electron microscopes to study the
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finer details of organisms. Then my chairman was going on a speaking tour through South America. He was a specialist in tropical diseases. And he came into the lab one day and said I think it would be important for you to take my class while I’m away. I said I wouldn’t be caught dead teaching because I hadn’t realized until then I had very low opinion of teachers. All of the professors that I had had, all the teachers I’d had that were wonderful, I never thought of them as teachers. And so it’s astonishing that he
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didn’t crack a smile or anything. He just figured that I had a lot to learn and he said it’ll do you good. He’d give me his notes and all I had to do was teach. He said there’s only one trick that you need to know and that is learn the names of the fellows that sit on the back row and when you’re lecturing and somebody starts to whisper or catch the eye of their buddy, all you do is say do you agree, Mister Smith? And it’ll scare the daylights out of them; they’ll think you know everybody there because Doctor Sewell did—h—photographic memory. He did know everybody there. And so from then on, they’ll all
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behave. And he was right. It was just astonishing how magic it was when you just knew a few of the names of the key mischief makers. But what I found was that people were so much more interesting than bacteria. I had really enjoyed working on microorganisms, but there’s no reason I couldn’t do both. So from then on, I was working with students as well as the microorganisms.
DT: Do you think that there’s something about studying life in its smallest components that has helped you understand the makeup in life in a larger sense?
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RL: Well, the thing I love most about microorganisms is that they’ve been totally ignored by most people except in terms of disease and so people forgot that most things that happen with the foods we eat—cheese—depends on the microorganisms modifying the milk, yogurt as well, sauerkraut, beer, wine, breads with its leavens from yeast, so that there’s a whole spectrum of beneficial microorganisms. But the part that seemed most obvious to me was the importance of microorganisms as they decompose dead organic matter and waste material, so that if we did not have that part of the living family
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in the community, we’d be buried in dead bodies and waste. So that it’s absolutely essential that they see that third component. The producers, the green plants trap the energy from the sunlight and make possible the food that the higher animals can eat. Then the consumers eat the food and s—give off waste that the microorganisms need to decompose. So we need the three components, two of which we are a—aware of—the producers and the consumers—but the decomposers, we kind of ignore or treat as waste.
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And they’re not, they’re absolutely essential to the cycle of life on the planet and many of them are very beautiful organisms, so that if you have a chance to look at protozoa under the microscope, you’ll be fascinated with them just as I am.
DT: Well, could you describe one, the function and appearance is really (inaudible) beauty for you?
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RL: If you take a little—a drop of pond scum, you may find some organisms—you’ll see maybe 50 different varieties of organisms, but you’ll see some that have the structure of a funnel. They’re vorticella and they’re my most favorite beautiful ones. And they have cilia all around the mouth of the funnel and they—the stem that they’re on, contract with the beating of the flagella. It’s perfectly beautiful to watch. And these—you see the—the feeding process because you can watch the particles in the solution go by as these suck in the nutrients that they need from the pond scum water.
DT: You know, I was intrigued by looking at your history and that at one point, you were offered to study sort of the darker side of bacteriology, for uses like warfare, and I was wondering what your reaction was to that offer and why you took that stance.
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RL: Well, the—one of the great tragedies of this world is that the human race doesn’t get its act together and so war is one of the most wasteful and yet prevalent practices of human beings. When we were in—following World War II, when the chairman of the department died, was replaced with another individual who really believed that research in bacteriological warfare was going to be the U.S.’s best protection against World War III. And so he had set up a very strong mood in the department that we should emphasize bacteriological warfare research. Well, I think that that’s extremely dangerous for
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beginning students to be working with such virulent organisms. But more than that, it’s very immoral because I can’t think any—anything worse than the diabolical business of trying to kill your enemy off with epidemics, microorganisms and so I saw this as intolerable for me personally and though I knew that weapons of mass destruction have been popular for a—as long as we can think back. As we know, many of the American Indians were killed off with blankets that had smallpox virus and set up smallpox epidemics with the American Indians. So it’s a—a great tragedy in this world, but I told
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the chairman that I was not comfortable with this and that I would resign from the department. And he said oh, no. Just take a sabbatical. And I said, I’m not going to change my attitude, my belief. I—I think this is unethical and I can’t be a party to it. So I resigned as soon as I’d finished the last two doctoral students because it’s an awful problem if you’re a doctoral student and your chairman takes off. So I finished the two doctoral students that I still had pending and then I resigned and went to New York City to work in a research institute where I could then try broader ideas on teaching. I—the
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one thing I really wanted to do was to see if students couldn’t understand a functioning, living organism very quickly when they’re beginning in physiology. And so rather than to sit and memorize the names of enzymes and bones and muscles and so on, I wanted them to get a sense of how an organism functions. So we start off with a chicken foot with the—or chicken leg with the foot attached so that they could see how the tendons pull the fo—the foot forward. See how many different kinds of tissues there are all
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working together and then to see it from first the organ and then the organ system that it’s connected with and then all the parts that—right down to the toenails that make up a functioning part of a living organism. And sure enough, I think it—that that’s a very valid way to approach understanding physiology. But it meant that I was moving from one small group of students, private schools, to another and so this was a very, kind of chaotic time. I loved it because I learned a lot personally.
DT: This was in the City University of New York?
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RL: Well, this was—this was working out of a research foundation in New York. Working for a lot of different small schools and one of the opportunities I had was to talk to a group of students at Brooklyn College in City University in New York. And I couldn’t believe how bright they were and how interested. They were just a marvelous group of kids. And I had taught in the medical school at the University of Michigan, so it isn’t as if I had come from a poor, benighted population. But these young people were so in—well informed and had such good questions that I was very impressed with them. And of course, this was back in the days before open admissions, when it was a scholarship school and only the brightest and best of the high school graduates were given a free education at the City University, that the—that city college—and Brooklyn College. It was one of the city colleges. And so I didn’t realize that I was really getting the cream of the crop of New York when I was visiting it, Brooklyn. The
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chairman of the—oh, the friend that had taken me there said you should talk to the chairman because we’d love to have you teach here. And he said but—he was in education and, of course, I—my training and all my credentials were in biology. So he said you need to talk to the biology chairman. So I talked to the biology chairman and he had, oh, half a dozen of faculty people in his department there. They kept bringing me syllabi in and said what do you know about this, what do you know about that? I could—
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all of them—when it came to ecology, I said well, I don’t know much about that. And one of the world famous biochemists that was on the faculty said I don’t either. Nobody does. This is a hard field because you have to know a lot about many things in order—how—see how the puzzle fits together. And of course, in the last 40 years, a great deal has been known in that direction. And we’re right, it is complicated.
DT: You were migrating from bacteriology and microbiology really to much bigger systems in a much bigger frame, talking about ecological systems. When did that happen and what peaked your interest? Was it something you read or students that you ran into or problems that you were seeing in the natural world?
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RL: Of course, back in my undergraduate days, I’d had background so that I could work on something like host-parasite relationship with microorganisms, understanding what the host was like because I’d had physiology. And so I realized that if—when you get into the environment, then you have—this is where the ecology comes in, where you have the host and the parasite and the environment. They’re all functioning together. And so to begin with, I had just been working on the broader picture of physiology, of living organisms. And then when I wanted to work in science education, it was important
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for me to go back and fill in some of the gaps that I had. So I took a course in botany and I took some advanced mathematics, calculus, so that I would have a—a better understanding of the broad picture that science really presents when you pick any particular field. So I had a course in—well, even at the University of Michigan, my chairman had said I think you’d like to see how microorganisms function with the—in their beneficial setting rather than be a—a narrow setting of disease and host-parasite relationship in medicine. And so he had me develop a course in the applied microbial—biology and we had a wonderful time showing the liberal arts students the beneficial uses
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of microorganisms. And that was probably the first place that I ran into the im—importance of the community of microorganisms that are used to decompose organic waste. And that’s the way most sewage is decomposed, with activated sludge, which is sludge being a community of living organisms. So I’d already begun broadening my scope but the thing that seemed important was that there needed to be better science training for teachers. And what I wanted to do was to get into science education where elementary school teachers, especially, needed to have a course in general science that
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would show the physical sciences and the biological sciences and how they interrelate since the environment represents a sort of the matrix in which living organisms exist. So we develop a course, a graduate level, where we had in-service teachers coming in for general science as a extension of their graduate program and improving their science skills in the classroom. And occasionally we’d get a—a student that would come in. First, he would—he—one student was really shocked to see that a woman was teaching the course. And then he wanted me to know that he hated science. He loved social
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studies and history and the other areas of the curriculum that he taught, but he personally hated science. And I said doesn’t matter. All you have to do is work. The natural world is so fascinating that once you put your nose in this and work hard on it, you’ll be as intrigued with it as the rest of us are. And so he s—stayed in the course. Within the few weeks, he was volunteering to show how musical spoons can show rhythm and yet be involved in sound and understanding the physical world. So I don’t think there’s any question that if people—if teachers, especially, had a clearer understanding of how you
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can explore the mysteries of the natural world by scientific method that, in no time at all, you have a—a skill that can answer questions for yourself. And every time you get an answer to a question, what do you know? There are a whole lot more questions that it opens up.
DT: I’m curious if there were any books that you might have been reading along this time that were posing questions for you or maybe providing some answers? Were you reading Rachel Carson or Odom’s books or—what was introducing some of these thoughts to you?
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RL: Well, I was so new at all of this that I’m embarrassed to say the person who seemed most inspiring to me as I was reading was John Dewey, where you learn by doing. I—I was so convinced, and of course, I’d been raised that way myself so that I just took it for granted that if you wanted to know something, you went out in the field and took a look. And so when I—when I began to explore how do the disciplines of education interface with the science, I found out that a century before, people had been puzzling about the same thing. And the best way to learn is to get in there and try something.
DT: Did you take field trips to local marshes or were you doing this work in the lab?
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RL: Well, when we set up the—the teacher training program, we had field trips that would just go around the block. Or we could go to the botanical gardens that had all variety of opportunities for examples of what to do and not—not to do in this world wh—to allow living organisms to survive. I remember one class going along a line of trees in the gardens where every time people had gone by, each person had—or child or whoever had pulled a little piece of bark off the tree. And after thousands of people went by, the
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tree was girdled and dead. And it was such a revelation to see how vulnerable something can be when it looks as tough as a tree does, standing along the—next to the sidewalk. So the—little observations like this were helpful. I remember one of my students who, after graduation, had—was teaching at a junior high school. And she said she was out driving with her husband one Sunday and suddenly she said stop the car, stop the car. And s—so he quickly stopped the car, thinking it must be some emergency. And she said I have to show you that. They had just passed a tree that had had the bark knocked off.
00:51:29 – 2328
It was by a driveway and so probably a car had hit it. And she wanted to show how the tree was healing. It had come as such a revelation to her that, as we’d gone on a field trip, to see that a tree could actually find a way of healing that kind of damage, that she had to show her husband. And to me, that’s the difference, when you actually begin to see how nature operates.
DT: What sort of questions did your students bring to you, particularly the teachers? Were there questions that they had about the natural world that they wanted you to help them understand and then teach to their students?
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RL: Very often they had questions that they had just settled for not understanding. And one young woman that I remember had a husband and a couple sons that had convinced her that, as the little woman, she didn’t need to understand that—just call them and they could change the fuse plug or they could do whatever is needed. And so she had thought of herself as a sweet, lovely, gracious, intelligent lady. And she had always puzzled because in the summertime, she could drive in and out of the garage with no problem. The door opened with no problem. But in the wintertime, the door often
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wouldn’t open and she couldn’t figure out why. So she came into class one night just thrilled. She said this time the door was stuck, it wouldn’t open. I got out of the car and I took a look. Well, what was it? And she found that during the day, the snow melted and the water ran down and then at night, it froze and so the door was stuck in ice along the edge of the doorsill. And as soon as she cracked the ice, the door would open. So you could see from the twinkle in her eye that she knew she had a brain that could handle this. She didn’t have to ask her husband or her boys to go out and open the garage because she
00:53:44 – 2328
now understood what happened in Mother Nature and that it was a perfectly normal process. She said I always thought that things expanded when it got warm so I thought the door would be bigger and it would bind in the summertime and then contract in the winter. She said doesn’t have to contract. May have been contracted, but the ice was the thing that had held the door from opening.
DT: It sounds like what you were trying to pass on was faith in the scientific method and the ability to ask logical questions and that nature would provide answers if you were observant. Is that fair?
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RL: Not only that, but that scientific method’s a very natural kind of process and so that the kinds of questions that children ask are the ones that the scientist asks, too. And so if you don’t get to the place where you forget what it was like to be a child and you learn how to memorize and you learn how to dish back what was dished out to you so that you get straight A’s on your transcript, then the chances are that you can go back to that childlike inquisitiveness of actually looking to see what—what the situation is. And you have a natural process of moving into the scientific exploration of being disciplined
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about the keeping a narrow focus on what your question is and then being honest about the results that you’re seeing. And if you find that you can’t get any results, your question’s too complicated. You need to break it down and find a smaller part of that that you can ask. And so you get more and more specialized in science. And often, if we’re not careful, we can lose our focus on the place of that specialty in the whole picture.
DT: Where are we on time?
DW: You mentioned that the professor you worked with said that ecology was a tough subject because you had so much, but historically, the word ecology doesn’t start getting bandied about until sometime in the 1960’s as a discipline.
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RL: It was brand new.
DW: And that would be my question to you, is where does this sudden development of your interest in it merge with the growing national, international and how would you have been influenced by the sudden Earth Day and the sudden change from the 1940’s and 50’s to that movement? Were you there as it was happening? Both at the same time? One leading the other? If maybe you could reflect on some of those—I guess Rachel Carson plays into that. I mean, how suddenly people who you were around in education became aware of this?
DT: Yeah, I’m curious if you could tell us how ecological systems that have been functioning for literally billions of years, all of a sudden in the sixties, became of interest and through common discussion. What was happening?
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RL: I think one of the wonderful things was sort of collision course between the recognition specialists that they an—were beginning to understand how logical nature is and the people, in general, who began to see the destruction of the environment and how you couldn’t, as pioneers did, just move onto a clean place and—and pollute that. But that if you are involved in living near smokestacks or living near refineries, that your—
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the children have problems with the—the residues that—or maybe the fumes that are coming in. The—they just beginning to understand that lead based paints were a real hazard because if children ate the paint chips, they would be getting lead poisoning. And so from the medical side of people and the sicknesses that they were showing, it—we began to understand how important the environment was. And so the specialists had specific information that they could bring to it. And so during the period of the early 60’s, we began to build this field that was known as ecology, that was the relationship
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between the organism and its environment. Or I should say the community of organisms and their environment, because almost never, except in a bacteriology lab, do you have a pure culture of something. Most everywhere you put your finger down, there are dozens or maybe hundreds of very different kinds of organisms that exist. And so out of this came a—a few very popular revelations. And I think Rashel—Rachel Carson’s recognition of the damage we were doing to the environment and that if we’re not careful, there will be a silent spring. And if we don’t take precautions, we’ll have more
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and more of the organisms that are sensitive to the environment become extinct and we’ll live in a world that is populated with those that can survive a very unpleasant environments. Unfortunately, rats and mice and cockroaches are among those, but human beings are among it, too. So that no matter how bad the degradation gets, the amazing thing is that human beings reproduce. May not flourish, they may be malnourished and they may be disabled, but wherever you put your finger down, you can
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find populations of women with a step—a stepladder of little children that have survived war and famine and disease and are still reproducing. So my impression is that we’re beginning to see the broad picture and how critical it is that we find ways, not only to protect the environment from further degradation, maybe slow down some of the processes that are causing global warming or the serious pollutions that occur in various places. So we had cleanup programs that were started here in—in San Antonio. We had
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Kelly Air Force Base, that when it was turned back to private enterprise, one of the important things is how to clean it up and especially the plume of polluted groundwater that is spreading out from Kelly.
[End of Reel 2328]
DT: Miss Lofgren, I thought you might be able to take us to the next chapter in your life. You’d been teaching both teachers and some students in science education when you were in New York, but in, I guess it was 1976, you decamped to San Antonio where you undertook to teach kids, in particular, and I was wondering if you could talk about shifting your life to San Antonio and the idea of focusing more on kids and their understanding the natural world?
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RL: Well, the thing that encouraged me to leave New York City, much as I enjoyed working with the students and the student teachers, was the fact that the city went broke and it wasn’t fun to teach anymore. We had copy machines but no paper for the machines and it was quite obvious that it takes money to run a city and to—certainly to run a city university. So the sensible thing was for me to take early retirement and move on. For my tenured line, the chairman of the department could easily replace me with two or three young instructors that could carry my ball and I could move onto the next
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stage. So I had been visiting in Mexico, among my travels, and there was a little Quaker school in Matawalla that I thought the old lady who was the director of the school would enjoy having someone come down who could help with science enrichment, but also, while I’m learning Spanish, maybe I could teach a little English to their children. And here was a school that was from—had been part of the early history of Mexico, where missionaries had gone down—Quaker missionaries had started the little school called the (?) Benito Juarez. And the woman who was now in her 80’s, who had been the—a young student at the school in the days of the Mexican Revolution, when the missionaries were being killed, all of the churches pulled their missionaries back into the U.S. and as they
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left Matawalla, they said to Maria Castillo, I think what you should do is the best you can to keep the school going. But that we’ll try to send help, fa—at least, financial help down from the—the U.S. She never heard anything more so that the—no messages got through. And she would scrub floors at night in the hotels in order to make enough money so that she could take children from poverty stricken homes into the school. So she supported the school by hard work at night and then in the daytime, she runs classes. And I was so impressed with her biography and I liked the lady herself. So I thought it
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would be an—a delight if I could work in the little Quaker school. I had a scholarship through the United Friends Meeting and planned to go down, but when I found that she had been very ill and a son-in-law had taken over helping her manage the school and he was horrified that an Anglo and a female would move in on his territory when it was quite clear that this (?) Benito Juarez was right downtown Matawalla, sort of next to the cathedral, that after her death, this would be a very valuable property. That it was awful to have this stranger move in on his territory. So I’m very su—superstitious. If a thing’s
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not right, then it’s not for me. And so when I could see that there was such a gulf between what his image of what the future of the little (?) was and mine. And then, as a miracle would have it, it began to rain and it rained for three days straight. There was not a movie house or a library or anything in the town that could support somebody like me and I’m not pioneer material myself. I come from pioneers, but I—I liked New York City with its richness of culture. So I was horrified at the lack of any kind of personal
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support system that I could find there and I thought Mother Nature’s right. This is not for me. So I decided it would be nice to be close to Mexico so I could go down and visit my friends there. I have friends in Mexico City and Ciela Victoria as well as Matawalla. And so I went to the library and everything I saw about San Antonio just looked like the Chamber of Commerce had written it. Beautiful and so betweens—I knew that there were two Quaker pastors here and I knew there’d been a bilingual conference held several times. So I wrote to the pastors, got no answer from either of them. One was
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Spanish speaking and the other was English speaking. And so between semesters in January, I flew from New York City to San Antonio. I left New York with dirty snow and green gray skies and dreary town, pulled into San Antonio—blue skies, white clouds, bougainvillea blu—blooming in the gardens. I just couldn’t believe my eyes; it looked like heaven on Earth. And warm weather so that you didn’t need a jacket and here it was January. And so I went to the bus station to get the bus routes and a map of the area and si—found the address of the little church that I’d written to. And he—I said oh, this is
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such a gorgeous state; I can just walk over there. He said oh, I don’t think I would if I were you. It’s across the tracks. I didn’t realize that San Antonio was a very segregated town. There was a west side and there was an east side and there was a north side and there was south side. And west side was Mexican or Hispanic and the east side was black and the south side were the old Texas people and the north side was pretty much the newcomers and the military. So it was a very strange thing because this was sort of
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pre-World War II and everyone was very comfortable with the designations. So as I—I walked over, because it didn’t bother me that it was across the tracks, and the closer I got to the address, the more the people that—when I would ask them I—in the right direction, began speaking Spanish. And what little Spanish I had, I could struggle along and they’d recognized the name of the school—or—or what I thought was going to be a church. I came to the address and here on the corner of Trinity and Lombrono, there
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were a whole series of little minibuses that all said Friends Special School on the side. So that instead of finding a little church, I found a school. And when I went in, the director, Raymond Martin, couldn’t see me immediately because there was an emergency in one of the classrooms, but he cleared his calendar after the emergency resolved, and we visited for the next few hours. It turns out he was a Quaker pastor who had come to San Antonio. He found that the policy here was to put children who were disruptive and
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who were street children in the hospital for the criminally insane and just leave them there. They were throwaway, unwanted and so he said th—there should be someone in there teaching them. It’s critical that children just not sit in limbo. So he s—went in, started classes for them and then he said we should have an alternate facility. It’s unwise that this be part of a hospital setting. So he went back to school, he got his PhD in clinical psychology and the credentials for school administration. Started his own school and it had been up to about 150 children. These were the children that the juvenile probation and the schools would farm out to private schools rather than try to educate
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them in a setting that was not providing the needs they had. The—emotionally disturbed children can work for a little while and then something happens and they get very disruptive and misbehaving.
DT: Was he able to teach them some science or anything about environmental science? What was he teaching them?
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RL: The astonishing thing was that it took me about half an hour with several of them to find out that you don’t really teach emotionally disturbed children. What you do is give them a few minutes of organized behavior. When they’re getting along fine in following directions and in logically building a—a (inaudible) or whatever they’re doing, maybe photography, and then something happens to them and you can see by the body language that in another two minutes, they can be destroying things. And so that’s the time to take the canister and go out into the fields that was a part of the campus of the
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school and catch insects for the terrarium or bugs that—to examine under the microscope. And as soon as they were out running around, their body language—they’d relax and they’d be comfortable again.
DT: So you took them on field trips and outdoor exercise?
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RL: And they—so you don’t really have lessons and the kind of thing that I had always been used to, organized instruction, but you just sort of improvise as you go along, leaping from one activity that takes short time to accomplish to the next thing. And to try and hope that they can get a sense of where they fit into this whole picture so that there’s something beneficial by catching the insects because the lizards or whatever is in the terrarium will need something to eat. And so they see that as constructive and yet there is not something which is a—a—sort of continuous lesson for them.
DT: You did this for, what, two years? Is that right?
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RL: Well, I came in and after I’d finished the work that I had to completed in New York. So I got in—in October of 1986—1976. And the school had already started, of course, the teachers had been organizing since August and the children came in at September. And already, there’d been some teachers that—that couldn’t stand the destruction of the children, the disorganization of them and so there’d been a turnover already in teachers at that point. But a very wise principal who was helping Raymond Martin suggested that I only take one child at a time into the science area. And fortunately the Region 20 Science Division here provided all kinds of wonderful equipment for me, so I immediately had the science area equipped with photographic equipment, with a terrarium, an aquarium and microscopes and hand lenses and anything that I wanted. I could get living specimens from the Region 20 headquarters for the terrarium, so…
DT: Were there any kind of exercises that gave epiphanies for these kids, that really opened their eyes to the natural world?
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RL: Well, I think I had a rather select population because their teachers gave them the reward when they’d done their classroom work. If they completed it well and efficiently, they had the privilege of going to science. So I think there were some children I never did see that—maybe be the most disturbed ones—but all the ones that loved science loved the natural world and enjoyed coming to science when they were in a mood to enjoy anything. The amazing thing to me was how important photography was to them. They could take pictures, then I’d develop the film and then they could, in the darkroom,
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enlarge the film and print pictures. And it was interesting to see, some of the children wanted to take pictures only of inanimate objects or sometimes only plants or animals. Some of them wanted no pictures except their friends so that they—there was a big difference among the children in how they used the photography, but they were all fascinated to watch the pictures come up in the darkroom. To put a—a blank piece of paper into a pan of chemicals and to watch, little by little, the—the details in the picture come up. So that a few of the children were just fascinated with that.
DT: Well, then, did you take any of these kids to Mitchell Lake? When did that start?
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RL: No, the—this was—this was a—a—a period before then and the public schools started a program for special education. So they drew back into the public schools for their special ed classes all the children that were not really serious cases. So by the time I got to San Antonio, all of the children—almost all of them—were on medication that came to the school. And some of them would have three and four seizures a day, even though they were on medication. So that it was just the bottom of the barrel that was left when I was there and the—the superintendent, Raymond Martin, said that we were just
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being exploited as a kind of holding tank for the children that really belonged in institutional care. And so he closed the school. So after 1978, I had a chance to work in volunteer organizations and I had called the League of Women Voters to say how do you register to vote here? And the woman who answered the phone was the present—at that time, president—president of the League and she talked me into joining and, within a few months, I was on the board because the water chair had resigned and since that was a
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field that I was fascinated with, I saw the importance of water and I knew that San Antonio was semiarid and had this miracle of an aquifer under it. And so I became water chair for the League of Women Voters.
DT: What were some of the major water issues that you dealt with? Was it Applewhite or Edwards Aquifer Recharge problems? Could you mention some of those?
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RL: The—as a member of the League of Women Voters, they call us a public interest group, or a PIG. I didn’t—until I went to a regional conference in Houston, I’d never heard the term that I was a PIG, but that’s what the—my group of public interest groups was designated. But that provided me the background to become—just to be appointed to the city’s 201 wastewater advisory committee for City Council. And so I had considerable information from my own background in microbiology on—because they used waste activated sludge method of decomposing sewage here, this was a natural for me.
DT: And at this time, San Antonio was just building some of their secondary treating plants?
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RL: San Antonio was in a serious bind. The city was growing so much faster than the infrastructure, so that the—the three treatment plants they had were running about 150 percent of capacity, which means they can’t run efficiently. They just have to flow the sewage on through. But they used an—natural lake in San Antonio. In 1901, the city made a contract with the irrigators that owns a little lake to put in a dam and allow—allow the lake to enlarge, so that it could receive the San Antonio City sewage. And they ran a line—a canal at that time—from the sewer farm that was over about where Stinson Field is over to Mitchell Lake. And so the lake get bigger and bigger and bigger, so that
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it went from this pond that it was prehistorically to a—let’s see, it must’ve been about 900 acres at—before it was modified. And that way, the city’s sewage went into this pond that if—at—for the first few years, it was fine because the irrigators had fertilizer in their water so that their—the corn that was irrigated with lake—water from Mitchell Lake grew a foot taller than the corn that was watered with just ordinary river water. But after a few decades, the lake became so soupy that it was no longer a—a lake with fishing and
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hunting and boating, but at that point, it was really a sewage lagoon. And finally by the 60’s, the city bought the property and managed it in connection with the Rilling Road Treatment Plant as a, really, wastewater facility.
DT: And at what point did you start to realize that this might be a wildlife resource, a place to go birding and to protect…
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RL: Well, when I first came here and was on the 201 wastewater advisory committee, I wanted to know what the plant was like, or what the whole system was like. And so I took a tour of the—one of the engineers was very kind and took me from plant to plant and showed me that. And among the—the tour was a—a visit to Mitchell Lake. And here was 1200 acres—well, 1400 acres by that time—and of beautiful farm country with this big lake in it. A lot of volunteer bushes and trees, but it was clear that this was an idyllic part of South San Antonio. The lake had been modified so the north end of the
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lake had been cut off so that they made small ponds that they put the fresh sewage into—or the fresh activated sludge so that the lake itself was allowed to just continue with nature’s process of decomposing the sludge. But it was clear that this was a perfectly marvelous property. But they had a serious emergency with how do you handle thousands of extra gallons of activated sludge that the city’s plants couldn’t handle? So I was on the planning program for the Dos Rios Treatment Plant. I knew that there was a new plant coming online, but there’d been such confusion. Originally, this—the federal
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government said let cost be no factor. Make a plan that gives you a state of the art treatment plant. So we’ll pay maybe 75 percent of the cost. Well, then, a—a while later, it will say well, maybe 50 percent, well, maybe 25 percent. And so that—back to the drawing boards and have to modify the plans. Well, the chief engineer on this, who became later the CEO for the wastewater—for the San Antonio water system, he said every time it was back to the drawing boards, they improved the plans so that we have a much better plant than if it had actually been implemented in 1972. But it finally came
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online in 1987 so that, at that point, no more waste activated sludge came to Mitchell Lake and it was possible for them to see that the lake was abandoned and they were getting all of the sewage treatment at Dos Rios Treatment Plant and the other two plants, Solano and Leon Creek. And one of the Beyer Audubon women came to me and said the place is drying up. Without the sludge coming in, you know, this used to be a little pond. And so if—in this desert country, this is going to dry up. We don’t have the mudflats that
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the shorebirds and waterfowl need. And in 1972, the Audubon nat—the San Antonio Audubon people had pled with the city council to declare it a wildlife refuge for shorebirds and waterfowl. I hadn’t realized when I’d seen the layout as part of the sewage system that it was on the central flyway for the whole of Northern American continent. And so twice a year, the birds came through this sort of funnel down into Texas and right over Mitchell Lake. And since this was the o—o—only—one of two
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natural lakes in Texas, this was an ideal place for the birds that needed sh—shoreline and the waterfowl. And so they had a—a tremendous population and diverse population of birds come through Mitchell Lake. The Audubon people had known that since the 40’s. By the 50’s, they organized a birding club here and so it was clear that this was not only a wastewater facility, but it also was a wildlife refuge for shorebirds and waterfowl. And when the lake was abandoned by the wastewater treatment, now is the time it can be converted into a wildlife refuge. So when Susan came—Susan Rust said the place is
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drying up, we went to the wastewater department chairman and said we need water to come—and I knew there was a gravity flow line from Leon Creek Treatment Plant to the lake—to the bottom of the lake. We need ef—treated effluent to come from Leon Creek Treatment Plant to the lake to maintain the water levels there and keep it from drying up and provide the habitats for the birds. He said we’ll do that on condition that the—Helen Dutmer, who was the chairman of the 201 wastewater committee—if she’ll make, and then he composed the name of the organization. The committee was supposed to be the
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Mitchell Lake Recovery Advisory Subcommittee of the 201 Wastewater Advisory Committee of City Council. And that was our official name. It eventually got shortened down to MLRC. But Helen said yes, that if I would co-chair of the committee so she didn’t have to attend all the meetings, that we would have a Mitchell Lake recovery advisory subcommittee. And at that point, we organized a committee of specialists to analyze and develop a plan. It’s called the comprehensive plan for the cleanup and ongoing management of the Mitchell Lake property. Well, Mitchell Lake and Ch—and
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Chavaneaux Gardens, which was the—the land north of Mitchell Lake. And but that had been used for irrigation to get rid of some of the liquid from the—the sludge. And so at that point, the chairman of the wastewater department had treated effluent flowing into Mitchell Lake to maintain water level. And that was 1987 and it’s been flowing ever since. It’s nine years now. So that has maintained the habitat for the shorebirds and waterfowl that come through and…
DT: When did you first start having educational programs at Mitchell Lake?
00:31:04 – 2329
RL: I think the—the first real program was a—in 1990 when the Junior League sent a notice around to various organizations of the fact that they thought that the environment was an important issue that they should add environmental projects as one of the choices that they—their girls could volunteer for. And so, though they were working in various
00:31:32 – 2329
activities around the city, they didn’t have anything that was environmental. And so when the notice came to the League of Women Voters and I said we’ll invent one. So we invented the—the Mitchell Lake Wetlands Project and I presented it to the Junior League population and five or six girls signed up for the project. I had assumed that we could then just go out and plant aquatic plants and start making it into a real wetlands and was rather shocked when I discovered that it wasn’t a wetlands. They were—th—these diked areas had so much sludge deposit in them that the algae loved growing there and that the
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algae on decomposing made the water more alkaline. And of course, San Antonio water’s already alkaline. And so in some of them, the pH was as high as 8 or 9. Well, now it’s 9 to 11, so it’s—in the ten years that has gone since. So it was not appropriate for the girls to go out and plant aquatic plants and they took one look at it and said with the reputation that Mitchell Lake has as a stinking sewage lagoon, we need public education that says let’s convert from that image to one that says wildlife refuge. So they put on a project of public education and the first thing they did was—the first year, they
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worked on learning more about wastewater treatment and what was involved to how it was polluted. And then they developed a pa—brochure that told the story of the dream of a Mitchell Lake Wildlife Refuge and a charming brochure. The first printing disappeared almost immediately because people were delighted to find out that there was an alternative to the image that they’d had in the past. And the greater Chamber of Commerce reprinted it and that—I have just a few copies left of the—that reprinting. So
00:34:09 – 2329
our first educational process was working with the Junior League girls and this—the second year, they put on a photo contest. And one of the things that they had from the photo contest, it was Focus on wildlife and Focus on the wetlands and cosponsored with the San Antonio Express News. And they rounded up enough money to offer some really good prizes in a whole series of areas so that professional photographers from far and wide came for the photographic sessions there. And some of the most beautiful pictures you can imagine of the early morning ones, but also some sunset pictures that
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were outstanding. And so they had a wonderful ceremony of the recognizing these as outstanding winners of the photographs. The Express News did a beautiful job, full pages of reproductions of the photographs. Another one of the programs that they put on was Dining with a Heron, where they had a tent near the gate at Mitchell Lake and tables and chairs and box lunches and invited a lot of the decision makers and important people that could make a difference in understanding about Mitchell Lake to dine with the
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heron. I remember Mike Greenberg, one of the writers for the—the Express News, he said Mitchell Lake is all wet; it’s for the birds as the heading for his article that was very favorable on the potential of Mitchell Lake as a wildlife refuge.
DT: Did you soon start having children come out and students?
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RL: Of course, the—the girls brought their children out, but at this point, we hadn’t anything that formal. The fourth year of the project, they go one year at a time and each one had developed well, and so the fourth year, if it’s something that the community can take over, the Junior League pulls back and you work on the—a community activity. So at that point, we developed the Mitchell Lake Wildlife Refuge as the basis for developing 501(c)3 organization where we took the people who were dedicated supporters of Mitchell Lake as a wildlife refuge into the Mitchell Lake Wetland Society.
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And the girls—Susan Rust was very helpful in helping us write the bylaws and we incorporated as Mitchell Lake Wetland Society. This is our twelfth year at this point and the population was—the membership was drawn from San Antonio Audubon Society, the Beyer Audubon Society, the League of Women Voters and the Junior League. So we had a good core and then, of course, others that heard about it began to join. And there have been people coming to Mitchell Lake to do birding over the years from all over the world. And so one of our members or a couple of our members are in England. They’re in probably a dozen different states. Now some of them have lived here and have moved
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to some other state and still maintain their membership in the Mitchell Lake Wetland Society, but some of them have just come through San Antonio and heard about this. Just recently a lady was visiting our Quaker meeting and she mentioned that she was an avid birder and she was on her way down to the coast to see the whooping cranes. And so someone brought her over during coffee hour and said she needs to know about Mitchell Lake. And so I said let’s plan a visit so the—the following day, one of the really outstanding birders in the area met us at Mitchell Lake. I took her down and then
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Georgina took her birding at Mitchell Lake and then Georgina took her back to her hotel. And I said the important thing for you is to remember when you go back to New Jersey, because there are a lot of avid birders in New Jersey—when you go back to New Jersey, please tell everybody before you go down to the see the whooping cranes, stop at Mitchell Lake and—because they’ll fly into San Antonio before they go down. So this was just—just perfect. And so we have still a wide variety of people that come through, but we need the core support in local residents so that our local politicians understand that this is very precious. It may be city property, but it really belongs to the community.
DT: Miss Lofgren, earlier you were saying that the next step was setting up some sort of a teacher education program, is that correct, at Mitchell Lake?
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RL: Well, there’s such a wonderful opportunity there for letting in-service teachers view nature in its setting at Mitchell Lake that we organized teacher workshops on—ecological workshops for elementary school teachers. And they could be self-selective, so we just advertised around and said Mitchell Lake Wetland Society is offering a teacher’s workshop in environmental education. The morning will be spent in the field, seeing nature as it’s in operation. The afternoon will be spent at Palo Alto College on activities that you can take back to the classroom for your—your own school. And we
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had one population of 15 teachers the first time. Occasionally we’d have extra people that we couldn’t accommodate because we wanted to limit to 15 because they had to be on buses to—or vans to tour the wetlands. And then the second year, we had so many that we had two full sections and a few more. We had people come as far as from Catholic schools in Eagle Pass and many of the private schools in San Antonio as well as the public schools. And we found that they enjoyed the fieldwork so much that they thought this was really unfair that they had to go back to the classroom for the afternoon,
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and I think partly because we had one of the world’s best birders, Ernie Roney, for the—the fieldwork on th—the wetlands. And for the uplands section of the workshop, David Ribble from Trinity University, the chairman at Trinity now, who was marvelous on small mammals. And so—and I did the limnology of a—the lake discussion of the—the lake, the wetlands and the uplands as a part of the picture of the whole wildlife. And then I think they all enjoyed the bottle gardens that they made and the special s—specimens they had to identify as if they were on a field trip for their class. So the afternoon was enjoyable but they all loved being right out in the field.
DT: What is a bottle garden?
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RL: You put in a bottle that can be closed gravel and soil and some plants—small plants that fit into the garden—and make a small terrarium and then water it, close it off and you can watch the condensation of the—the moisture in the air run down the sides of the bottle. And you can make this on this—elaborate as you want. But it can be as small as a quart bottle or and—we bought containers that were sort of spherical with a flat bottom so that it was more attractive than just a regular quart bottle. And these can grow in your windowsill and if you want tiny animals in there, it’s possible. If—if—use any
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imagination you want. You can watch the plants grow and outgrow their environment, if you like. But it makes it a nice classroom activity for the children and it gives a—an excellent setting of how important the root system for a plant is, as well as the part that we’re used to seeing that—that grows above ground.
DT: Well, it’s intriguing to me that you’ve, in so many different circumstances, whether it was in Michigan or New York or San Antonio, in schools and out in the field, Mitchell Lake and in classrooms, that you’ve worked with education again and again. And I was wondering if you could, perhaps, tell us what sort of message you would want to give to young people about the environment, about an understanding of the natural world that they could take away and maybe apply in their own lives?
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RL: Well, I think one of the important things is that we find a way to help urban people understand that they’re part of the natural world. I think we’re so re—re—remote from the natural processes that go on—even the sources of our food—that we don’t think in terms of our being the same vulnerable organisms affected by the same environmental factors that lower organisms are. And so I’d like to see everyone have an opportunity to get acquainted with their place in nature. And the part that I think is so exciting is that there are now—coming widespread recognition of the importance of this in urban life. And the book of The Last Child in the Woods is a compilation that shows all the
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research that points in the direction of how you can be just as malnourished if you don’t have an understanding of yourself as a living organism as you are if you don’t get the vitamins that you need. I know I have that personal feeling with music. I find that music is just as essential to me in my own healthiness as vitamins are. So the exciting thing to me was to discover that there are a lot of young people that recognize the importance of understanding holistic resource management. I was at a conference in Kerrville a couple of weeks ago, and here’s a three day conference with lots of young people there, listening
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to the experienced hands, like Malcolm Beck and many of the people who had come from various institutions around, explaining how important it is for us to recognize that each of us has special needs and requirements. And so what we should do is to not try to force a particular organism on a—an environmental setting, but to let nature take its course. They were talking about the difference between in a farming situation where land can handle the—raising goats and be very profitable because they’re well adapted to the environment that’s there. The plants and the droughts and so on that is—that natural
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setting while cattle might not be nearly as productive. And one of the prof—men speaking said and the embarrassing thing is to find out that there’s a pecking order in prestige so that people will sell their goats and buy cattle because the peer pressure is so great. To be a cattleman is so much high status compared to being someone that just has goats. So that what he’s suggesting is be sensible. Look at what the situation is and if goats are the—the best organism for the setting, specialize in goats. Let your cattlemen
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snobby friends go the other direction. And to see young people that recognize that we have to recognize the importance of seeing how important the natural world is in the healthiness of our society, I think is very wholesome. Gives me hope over the tremendous amount of panic and discouragement that people feel and are being alienated from the natural world by our urban advantages and temptations, I suppose.
DT: Well, you were talking about how a goat or a cow might fit in different sort of circumstances, different kinds of environments. Maybe you could talk about yourself. Is there a particular place you like to go where you feel most at ease or that you feel most lucky to be there because of the surroundings?
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DT: Well, I must say I like diversity so much that it’s a temptation to say I like anything and that’s not true. There are some places that just feel right to my bone marrow. And Symphony Hall or an opera house is—are places that I love, but the place that reaches me deepest is the—I would say the area behind the Grand Tetons in the Teton National Park in Wyoming. There’s a little mountain lake way up behind the Tetons, and we’ve hiked up to there and camped out and there’s nothing more wonderful than to see the sunrise with the mountains. Where you can peek out of the tent,
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somebody else is getting breakfast, and it has all the inspiration of the great mountains, but they’re people sized. You can actually, in a nine-mile hike, get into that area. And to me, that is so restoring to the soul. But it says something else again, how important it is that we stay in touch with the natural world that we live in.
DT: Well, I have no more questions. I know you’ve spoken so well, I don’t know if you have anything to add, but please feel free to. Anything else comes to mind that you’ve like to pass on?
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RL: Well, I am a natural optimist and as many directions as my concerns can go from listening to the evening news, the more I am acquainted with young people and the more I see the happy old people on the planet, the more convinced I am that we’ll be around for another 1000 years. That this is a—a challenge, but it’s not insurmountable.
DT: Thank you very much.
[End of Reel 2329]
[End of Interview with Ruth Lofgren]