Marian Byrnes and Calumet Stewardship Initiative
By Mark J. Bouman, Chicago State University
Like the Calumet region she loved and served, Marian Byrnes defied easy description: she is remembered as “a powerful and intelligent voice for the environment,” “bull-headed,” “smart, capable, informed and wise,” “a tough cookie,” “sweet, thoughtful, and nurturing.” She confounded expectations: hearing of her reputation, one could be disarmed by her sweetness; experiencing her sweetness, one might suddenly confront her steely resolve. She mixed wide vision, tactical savvy, relational skill, a bedrock of spiritual and civic values, countless meetings, and hours and hours of unsung typing, collating, and mailing into one dynamic package. Judy Lihota, President of the Calumet Ecological Park Association calls her “the perfect grassroots environmentalist.” All agree that she was “one of a kind.” Marian’s Stewardship of the environment covered the air, soil, water, and biota of the region. For instance, she could speak the languages of particulate pollution and “good neighbor dialogues” to end it; of soil toxicity and the “tiered approach to cleanup objectives” to end it; of purple loosestrife and strategies to end its invasion; of the common moorhen, yellow headed blackbird, and black-crowned night heron and strategies to let them fly. She not only spoke these languages, she could spell them. Perfectly.
Since she formed the first student chapter of the NAACP at Indiana University in the 1940s, Marian recognized problems in the world she inhabited and took the Initiative to solve them. The list of organizations she founded in the Calumet region, many of them CSI partners, is breathtaking; she was, as Nicole Kamins of the city put it, a “formidable force”. In 1979, she organized the Committee to Protect the Prairie to secure the fate of Van Vlissingen Prairie behind her home (today this prairie has been designated the “Marian R. Byrnes Natural Area” by the City of Chicago.) She was Co-chairperson of Citizens Untied to Reclaim the Environment and led the effort to oppose Waste Management’s bid to put a landfill in Big Marsh. She founded what became the Southeast Environmental Task Force in 1989 and through SETF led campaigns against chemical waste incinerators, air polluters, and landfill expansion. (“No dumps! No deals!”) Knowing that the long-term solution to landfill pressure was to reduce the waste stream, she was an active member of the Chicago Recycling Coalition. When the City of Chicago proposed a Lake Calumet International Airport in the early 1990s, Marian was the leader of a response that not only thwarted the airport, but that projected a new vision for the region. With the late Jim Landing, she founded the Calumet Ecological Park Association in 1993 to advocate for this vision. After the National Park Service’s feasibility study for the Calumet Heritage Corridor was completed in 1998, Marian founded the Calumet Heritage Partnership to push for the designation of this corridor. About six years after that, when it appeared that some of the last remaining structures of the steel industry on the Calumet River would be demolished, Marian formed Chicago’s Steel Heritage Partnership to try to save them, and shepherded the incorporation of that group into CHP the next year. Marian Byrnes defined “initiative”. She stood for stewardship. She was Calumet.
Marian Byrnes died on May 20, 2010, at the age of eighty-four. A memorial website may be found at http://memorialwebsites.legacy.com/marianbyrnes.