From Mount Vernon to the nation’s capital and beyond, the accolades for Russ Libby, upon his untimely death, would have embarrassed him. Russ was a humble man, never eager for the limelight, although he often deserved it.
Robert Shetterly’s portrait of Russ for his series “Americans who tell the truth,” is profound, as is the quote from Russ that accompanies the portrait:
“We have to challenge the idea that contamination is just the price of living in the modern world. Our bodies don’t have systems to process plastics or flame retardants or pesticides. If contamination is the price of modern society, modern society has failed us.”
Russ’s body certainly wasn’t able to fend off the chemical contamination. On July 16, in a Maine Compass column for this newspaper, Russ told his story. One of 13 Maine participants in study of chemical pollutants, Russ was astonished to find that his body had the most contaminants of all the participants, including fire retardants.
In that column, which I think should be reprinted at least once a year and widely distributed, Russ wrote, “I’ve had a lot of occasions to think about the study since then. Eighteen months ago, I was diagnosed with two different forms of cancer — kidney and prostate — and I’ve been in a continuous medical cycle since.”
In his always kind-and-gentle manner, Russ reported, “Generally … the doctors don’t want to talk about the root causes of the diseases. I’ve eaten a healthy diet for decades, worked outdoors on my farm and kept in reasonably good shape.
“So what it is that triggered cancer in me, and not in the next person? And why is one of every three people now alive likely to be diagnosed with cancer?
“While this is a complex issue that makes it easier to focus on cures than prevention, our willingness to confront these root causes is going to be the difference between life and death or debilitating disease for our children and grandchildren. For their benefit, we’d better get busy.”
I would add: we’d better pay attention to Russ Libby’s work and legacy. Today’s accolades must turn into tomorrow’s actions.
Russ, of course, is best known for the 17 years he built the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association into a national powerhouse and brought new life to Maine’s small farming community. He’d want me to give credit to all who helped, but each one of them knows who was driving the bus.
Many of us treasured the last year of Russ’s life. He never gave up on life, never stopped working, never stayed home when he could be on the road preaching the gospel of organic food and farming.
I was amazed one day last spring to find Russ sitting in a legislative hearing room there preparing to testify. I quickly took a seat beside him, my favorite place to learn. Time spent with Russ was always a learning experience. He was incredible smart and savvy.
Mary Anne, Russ’s wife, is one of our town librarians, and one Saturday morning, I found Russ sitting in the children’s room at the library while Mary Anne worked, apparently taking the opportunity to get out of the house. I sat there with him for a long time, learning.
While the stories and obituaries focused on his state and national work, it was here in Mount Vernon that Russ excelled, at least for me.
It was a privilege to work with him in the 1980s, as we created the town’s comprehensive plan. It focused, as you might imagine, on preserving farmland and open space. Russ served our town in many key capacities, including as a selectman and a member of the school board. He negotiated contracts with our teachers in as fair and honest a manner as he conducted all of his other activities.
I am profoundly sorry that there will be no more learning experiences with Russ.
One day he asked me how we liked the apples on the tree on our front lawn. I told him that red delicious are not particularly our favorite apples. And he politely informed me that our tree was not a red delicious, but an historic variety that is now quite rare!
Linda and I missed Russ’s memorial service last Saturday in Mount Vernon. We were in Brockton, Mass., volunteering at My Brother’s Keeper, selecting, wrapping and delivering Christmas gifts to poor families.
Russ would never have wanted us to cancel that trip, on his behalf. And we won’t forget him. Ever.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.