In the footsteps of Olmsted

April 14, 2017
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“Gerry is a force of nature, and as somebody who loves history and the lessons it teaches us, he helps all of us to understand the rich history that underlies the [Emerald] Necklace and what it brings to us and the city.”- Northeastern University professor and former Governor Michael Dukakis

On a warm summer day in September, Gerry Wright found his way, via a flock of seagulls, to Jamaica Pond and stood on its banks admiring the beauty of the water, mesmerized by flickering half-lights and the deep wooded hill beyond. “I was looking out my dorm room window and wondered what was attracting seagulls away from the ocean and Charles River. I had a hunch it might be water and headed out to see for myself,” he explains.

What he found that day in 1958 would spark a lifelong passion to preserve and protect the pond, the pristine view of the hill and the surrounding Emerald Necklace parks. “It’s safe to say,” asserts Ben Taylor, chair of the [Emerald Necklace] Conservancy’s board of directors, “that Jamaica Pond would not be the wonderful place that tens of thousands of park lovers enjoy each year were it not for Gerry’s activism.”

“The pond is my centering point,” Gerry says with such conviction that one immediately senses that this body of water is as vital to his being as the air he breathes. His effective advocacy and steely determination helped to defeat several attempts over the years to build any structure that would mar the pond’s surrounding panorama of trees and woodlands. “We must preserve Olmsted’s work for the generations that follow,” he states.

A former Conservancy board member and current Park Overseer, Gerry is the co-founder of numerous park groups—the Jamaica Pond Project, Friends of Jamaica Pond and Olmsted 2022, to name a few. Given the time and energy he devotes to park matters, it is easy to assume that this is both vocation and avocation. But with an equal commitment to social justice, Gerry has spent decades working in the field of human services “His energy is boundless and inspiring,” says Sarah Freeman, who has collaborated with Gerry on parkway improvement projects.

To learn more about the man behind the parks, Gerry began to dig deeply into the writings of Frederick Law Olmsted and discovered an individual who shared not only a passion for nature but for social justice and democracy as well. “Olmsted’s ideals are in the parks he designed—they are open and welcoming to everyone,” he offers.

Determined to share Olmsted’s message Gerry wrote “Passages in the Life of an Unpractical Man,” a play based on Olmsted’s journals. Betsy Shure Gross, co-founder of the National Association for Olmsted Parks saw first-hand how the play affected people. “Gerry’s one-man show as Frederick Law Olmsted inspires audiences of all ages. Watching the faces of people in the audience who love the parks but who may know little of the genius of their 19th– century designer is always a touching and humbling experience. Few will have read “The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted” but Gerry will be certain [to share] the most significant quotations relevant to the creation of our Emerald Necklace.”

His local performances in 2003 soon attracted attention—in costume, a bearded Gerry is a dead-ringer for Olmsted. He was encouraged to reach an even wider audience when the late Sam Sherwood, fellow Jamaica Plain resident and community activist, effused after seeing the play, “Gerry, you became Olmsted—spread the gospel!”

In the summer of 2015, Gerry traveled to Yosemite at the invitation of the National Park Service to present the play at the 150th anniversary commemoration of Olmsted’s Yosemite Report. On his (mostly) solo journey by car he covered more than 8,700 miles, stopping at state, national and Olmsted-designed parks throughout the country and connecting with hundreds of people to share the words and wisdom of Olmsted.

Gerry is far too humble to ever compare himself with Olmsted but a comparison can be made—they inspire others to follow in their footsteps and both, one suspects, were mesmerized by a pond.

This article previously appeared in the Emerald Necklace Conservancy. There will be Olmsted’s 195th birthday celebration at the First Church of Jamaica Plain, Unitarian-Universalist, on April 26 at 6:30 p.m. where Wright will talk about protecting and preserving Jamaica Pond and Hellenic Hill.     

 

 

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