Editor’s Note: Wednesday’s horrible mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School may leave some Florida newcomers or outsiders wondering who the school is named for. She was one of the most famous Floridians, an author, feminist and ardent environmentalist known as “The Voice of the Everglades.” Here is Palm Beach Post staff writer Eliot Kleinberg’s obituary of her that was published on Friday, May 15, 1998.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas came to Florida when the Everglades, as it had for millennia, stretched to the shores of Lake Okeechobee and the frenetic salesmen of boomtime Miami could see it out the windows of their high-rises.
She called it the River of Grass.
In her lifetime, she watched it dwindle to a fenced-off polluted jewel, a fraction of its breadth. At a time when most people’s lives were winding down, she started a crusade to save what was left.
And she lived to see the environmentalists she inspired, the developers and farmers she denounced, and the government she chided for negligence and complicity try to form a shaky, leery alliance to complete her vision.
Mrs. Douglas died at 6:15 a.m. Thursday, Miami attorney and family friend William T. “Toby” Muir said. She was 108. She was older than Miami (102) and older than Palm Beach County (89). She lived two-thirds of the 153 years Florida has been a state.
She died at the Coconut Grove wood-and-stucco cottage, its shelves and walls cluttered with hundreds of books and plaques, that has been her home since 1926 and is scheduled to become a state historic site.
“I’m told she just grew quiet and breathed and crossed her arms over her chest, and with her nurses holding her hand, she quietly slipped away,” Muir said. “We should all hope for a passing as graceful and peaceful as that.”
Her ashes will be scattered in her beloved Everglades.
The frail but strong-voiced woman with the floppy hat and precise New England diction, simultaneously elegant and scrappy, could be found pointing her bony finger accusingly in the chambers of Washington and Tallahassee, the board rooms of water management agencies and meeting halls packed with antagonistic landowners and farmers.
She was ignored and jeered as often as she was lionized; she complained that her detractors were more deaf than her because they chose not to hear.
Born in Minnesota on April 7, 1890, reared in New England, and graduated from Wellesley College, she went through a divorce in 1925 and came to frontier South Florida, where her father was running The Miami Herald.
Even as the state was turning the machinery to drain the Everglades for farming, Frank Stoneman and his newspaper were warning of environmental catastrophe.
Mrs. Douglas worked at the Herald as a reporter, society editor and book reviewer.
“He used to say, `I send you out for a story and you come back with three sunsets and an editorial,’ ” she said of her father.
Of early Palm Beach, she wrote: “Fishermen wore silk shirts. Paper millionaires bought yachts. They shared alike the belief symbolized by Palm Beach, that success meant expensive waste.”
As a young adult she had dodged spittoons when she went to Tallahassee to fight for women’s right to vote. And she and friends would pack a picnic basket and drive west on Tamiami Trail to where it dead-ended at the Everglades.
“It was just wonderful,” she would say. “It was all empty and untouched.”
Because a doctor told her the pressure of daily deadlines would lead her to an early grave, Mrs. Douglas retired from newspaper reporting at age 37. She turned to freelance writing for magazines, including The Saturday Evening Post.
At 50, she had abandoned one book project when a publisher approached her to write about the Miami River for a series on America’s great rivers. She said it wasn’t much of a river, but she knew a much bigger one.
“There, on a writer’s whim and an editor’s decision, I was hooked with the idea that would consume me for the rest of my life,” she said in her autobiography.
The more she worked on this new book, the more she was convinced of what she has since preached to the world: that the massive wetlands in Florida’s interior is a river of grass, meandering to the sea, and a crucial part of the area’s rain machine.
“There are no other Everglades in the world,” her book begins. “They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth, remote, never wholly known.”
“The Everglades: River of Grass,” published in 1947, quickly became a bible for environmentalists; it still sells some 10,000 copies a year.
Florida writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings called it “this beautiful and bitter, sweet and savage book.” Hobe Sound environmentalist Nat Reed has called it “absolutely damn near poetry.”
Long before her book, activists who came before her had pushed to protect the Everglades, and the same year it came out, Mrs. Douglas sat with President Harry Truman at the ceremony creating Everglades National Park.
Then, in the 1960s, developers and government wanted to put a sprawling airport in the middle of the Everglades, run an expressway to it and allow growth on either side until a mega-city stretched from Miami to Naples. Environmentalists envisioned panthers, alligators and wading birds run out by convenience stores and housing tracts.
Mrs. Douglas and friends founded Friends of the Everglades, now boasting some 6,000 $10-a-year members. She was 80.
After the Jetport was scrapped, Mrs. Douglas and her group fought industrial parks in well fields, a Key Largo development and a tennis stadium on Key Biscayne. Friends of the Everglades has pushed for well field protection laws, government protection of the Biscayne Aquifer and Biscayne Bay and development of hazardous waste programs.
In later years, Mrs. Douglas was plagued by blindness and severe hearing problems but remained as feisty as ever and was sought by many for her wisdom. She spent each afternoon with a glass of scotch, answering her mail, making telephone calls and listening to books on tape.
Mrs. Douglas was blunt in saying farmers had no business in the Glades and should get out, and was vocal when the federal government sued state water managers in 1988 for failing to protect the Everglades from farm runoff.
“It’s expensive,” she said of the expected cleanup costs. “If you can’t afford to pay for your own pollution, you oughtn’t be in the business.”
Her accolades are many. Her name adorns a Broward County high school and the state’s Department of Natural Resources headquarters. In 1994, President Clinton called her “Grandmother of the Everglades” when he awarded her the Medal of Freedom.
U.S. Sen. Bob Graham said that all environmental victories are temporary and all defeats permanent.
But Mrs. Douglas would say, “It’s not too late. I’m not optimistic or pessimistic. It’s just got to be done.”