Fifty years ago this month, and just a few weeks out of high school, I began work at a federal agency known as “America’s greatest idea” – the US National Park Service.

It was just two months after the first Earth Day, and little did I know I was beginning a half-century career as an environmentalist.

At the time, there were no Endangered Species or Marine Mammal Protection acts, no Clean Water, Clean Air or Safe Drinking Water acts, no Coastal Zone Management Act, and certainly no Environmental Protection Agency.

For me it all began at my family’s little summer cottage in Eastham – hometown to the not quite decade-old Cape Cod National Seashore. I applied for a summer job there, but was turned down.

My mother, ever the political activist, sternly instructed me to lobby our state’s senators for assistance. Regarding U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, she said: “Tell him your family campaigned for his brother Jack when he ran for Congress and the U.S. Senate, and that as an 8-year-old you spread literature on his behalf in his run for president.”

She continued, “And tell Ted your family supported Jack Kennedy’s bill to establish the Seashore and applauded when he got to sign it into law at the White House.”

Not long after mailing my hand-scrawled letter, I received a telephone call from the U.S. Department of the Interior indicating that I now had a job at the Seashore – and unbeknownst to me, so began my life’s vocation.

Later that first summer on the job, Ted Kennedy planned a visit to the National Seashore, and we spent the day sprucing things up in anticipation of the senator’s tour.

By the end of my workday, with no Kennedy on-scene, I proceeded to what I did most afternoons and went surfing. While just offshore in the Coast Guard Beach line-up, I noticed a formally dressed troupe of men looking out of place as they stood atop the beach dune, gazing out over the expansive coastal landscape. It was the Kennedy entourage. I promptly caught the next wave to shore and climbed the stairs in a dripping wetsuit to shake the senator’s hand and thank him for landing me my first real job.

One of his aides quipped: “I hope you remember that on election day.” I said I would, but was just 18 and too young to vote. However, I lobbied: “If the senator’s bill lowering the voting age passed, he would have my vote.”

It passed, and he had my vote.

Twenty-six years later, I had the privilege of introducing my 14-year-old daughter to Sen. Kennedy, with whom I stayed in touch over the years, at the dedication of the Gloucester High School Benjamin Smith Field House.

After almost a decade as a seasonal Seashore employee, I moved on to my second environmental job when a new opportunity to lead the Commonwealth’s Coastal Zone Management (CZM) program on Cape Cod arose.

The position lasted for 13 years, including a promotion off-Cape to Boston as assistant CZM director.

Thus far, my life’s work had ranged from presenting public programs at the National Seashore about sea level rise, storms, and saving whales; to my time at CZM fighting oil and gas drilling on Georges Bank, saving open space, preserving our harbors, and supporting the Bay State’s commercial fisheries.

After my stint in government, I decided to give the nonprofit sector a try and opted for a job as Mass Audubon’s director of advocacy — that was 26 years ago. And what a gratifying opportunity it has been, lobbying on Beacon Hill to protect wetlands and oceans, forests, farms, endangered species, and most recently, engaging in the war on climate change.

Now it’s time to hang up the old cleats and pick up a new pair, as I pass the torch to a new generation of environmentalists and conservation advocates.

I will continue to work with the public and media on important public policy matters. I will continue to mentor the next generation of climate change warriors. And, I will continue to hold seats on various committees, commissions and boards all while advocating for the protection of the nature of Massachusetts, America and the planet.

Jack Clarke, a Gloucester resident, is the retiring director of public policy and government relations at Mass Audubon.

 

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