Remembering Lee Botts – A Faithful Friend of the Great Lakes

By Dave Dempsey

When Lee Botts died October 5 at age 91, the Great Lakes lost one of their best—and most faithful and effective—friends.

Although perhaps not well known in Michigan, Lee was a legend in the Great Lakes environmental community—particularly in northwest Indiana. She not only made our freshwater seas cleaner and more vibrant because of her work, but with constant, generous mentoring, passed her skills on to succeeding generations of advocates.

An Oklahoma native who moved to Chicago, then to northwest Indiana, Lee was an environmental giant when I met her in the 1980s. She was a co-founder and first director of the Lake Michigan Federation (now the Alliance for the Great Lakes), she was present at the creation of the advocacy group Great Lakes United, the former chair of the Great Lakes Basin Commission, and a citizen champion of the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. She convinced Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to make his city the first Great Lakes city to ban phosphates in laundry detergentsShe was a brilliant, often blunt, but warm-hearted, leader whose foes included men who couldn’t abide a strong woman. She showed them how advocacy should be done.

Jim Olson, FLOW’s founder and president, said, “When you met and worked with Lee, she became your mentor whether you knew it at the time or not. You knew she was a leader, one who led and worked passionately for the integrity of the Great Lakes, but also as a champion of the integrity of the process and the persons involved, whom she challenged to do the right thing. She was always prepared, saw the next strategical moves, and was fiercely articulate when she spoke or wrote. Her legacy includes much of the policy and values that protect the Great Lakes today.”

Long before I met her, Lee had begun a lifelong love affair with the remarkable sand dune region of northwest Indiana. In 1959, Lee had joined the Save the Dunes Council, an organization dedicated to saving what remained of the threatened dunes on Indiana’s Lake Michigan shoreline, sustaining a battle begun decades earlier that finally culminated when Congress established the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 1966. She carried on the work in her later years.

Lee founded the Indiana Dunes Environmental Learning Center within the Indiana Dunes National Park. The center offers year-round environmental education programs and overnight nature-camp experiences for grade-school students and teachers. Around 14,000 students from Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois, visit the Center annually.

Lee schooled me and many young men and women in matters of the Great Lakes. She significantly influenced my outlook on, and understanding of, everything related to the Great Lakes, and Lee’s advice continues to shape my views today.  She was generous to me and many others with her time and attention.

Jane Elder, former director of the Sierra Club’s Great Lakes program, now executive director of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters, says, “Lee was fundamental in shaping what we think of as the modern movement to protect the Great Lakes.” She points out even more successes Lee won to safeguard the Great Lakes in countless ways.

“The Palisades nuclear plant was the last nuclear power plant built on the American shores of the Great Lakes, in large part, because of Lee and the precedents she and a few others set in challenging its licensing. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement became a powerful tool for holding the United States and Canada accountable for protecting the Great Lakes, in part, because she fought to make it so.  She believed fervently that we need to invest in the next generation of leaders, and was a mentor to so many, including me.”

Jane adds: “She was a master strategist, understanding policy, political power, and the power of public action. I was always impressed by the stacks of environmental impact statements and reports in her cottage. She chose to pay attention and act. She knew how to drive policy as an activist, and as a public employee, and nimbly shift from one role to the other over the course of her life and career. She knew when she was in the dumps, and feeling discouraged, and how to take a break, and renew her energies to keep making a difference. And, on top of all this, she was a great cook and generous friend.”

One of my favorite memories of Lee is a night I spent in her house in the Indiana Dunes. It was mid- to late June, the beginning of deep summer. It was sultry and breezy. As I recall, we drank wine as she told Great Lakes stories. The sound of Lake Michigan surf was faint in the background. The choir of frogs in the interdunal wetland was much louder. Here we were, less than 45 miles from downtown Chicago by car, and I could imagine that it had sounded and felt like this, at this place, 150 years earlier. It was Lee’s place.

Bill Davis, environmental attorney and long-time Great Lakes advocate, remembers Lee’s philosophy and spirit. “Lee had a very narrow definition of what was impossible, and from a political point of view, that is an extremely important and powerful concept. There was very, very little that Lee truly thought could not be done. I remember during the ’80s when the Great Lakes movement was discussing what our position should be on discharge of persistent toxins; it was Lee’s influence directly and through those she had mentored that led us to the position of zero discharge. I believe that would have been unthinkable without Lee.” 

“To this very day,” Bill continues, “that notion of a limited sense of the impossible sticks with me, as evidenced by the project I am currently working on to completely rethink how we manage water to ensure we protect human health and the environment. I am not sure I would have understood that that was a real option without Lee’s influence.”

She was an effective leader who became a Great Lakes defender when men still assumed they ran the world and knew better. She did not give them an inch. Her legacy to the women of succeeding generations in the Great Lakes environmental movement is mammoth, but she also left the men—including this one—with appreciation of our place on this Earth, the need to cherish it, and the tools to protect it.

Jane Elder says, “Her passing marks the end of an era in the Great Lakes, but her legacy will live on for generations to come in the beauty of the dunes she loved, the sparkle of clear water on a Great Lake, and a new generation willing to love them and fight for them to keep these treasures alive and thriving.”

Dave Dempsey is the senior policy adviser at FLOW.

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