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Pete Seeger, Riverkeeper

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Amid the usual clutter of papers, magazines and letters on my dad's desk, I found a bag of heavyweight canvas about the size of a 10-pound load of sugar. It jangled when I moved it. I asked what it contained. "Screws for Pete Seeger," replied my old man, watching television a few feet away.

Through the magic of LPs, Pete Seeger had been a musical presence in our house going back to his years with The Weavers and until that mid-'60s moment. His politics, like that of my folks, were to the left of the left. He was a hero to my peace-loving parents.

Pop had read in the newspaper that Seeger had plans to build a boat which would pursue a purpose requiring a new word—a riverkeeper. It would be built using a form of charity that again would not acquire its own name until decades later—crowdsourcing. As much as possible, the boat would be built with mailed-in funds, volunteer labor and donated materials. Pop wanted in on this.

He'd started out working as a tool and die maker, and screws were part of the trade's vocabulary. He could help: Pop wrote to Seeger, and an exchange of letters followed. Seeger said that the sloop would be assembled using brass screws, the usual fastener for boat building. Pop said, yes, brass could be used, but they tarnish and leave dark "weeping" stains. These could be avoided by using stainless steel screws, though they are admittedly more expensive than brass. Together, they determined the approximate amount of screws needed for a 106-foot-long boat. Pop would see what he could do about supplying stainless assistance for the project. Somehow, a heavy load of steel landed on his desk.

Did he call in a favor from a friend at Illinois Tool Works? Did he receive a back-door discount from a guy on the loading dock at Elgin Screw Products? Did someone at the Belvedere assembly plant have some "extras" that Chrysler wouldn't miss? I don't know, but Pop didn't have friends in high places. They cost too much money and produced only occasional results. He was, instead, an old-style Chicago wheeler-dealer who found common ground with friends in shops and factories. One might suggest he paid for the screws himself, but a bottle of Crown Royal and a pair of tickets to a Cubs game were more interesting. That's more like my old man.

Pop shipped the screws to Beacon, N.Y., and the sloop was built at a shipyard in Maine and launched in 1969. Given the name Clearwater, it sailed up and down the Hudson River, in search of dumped garbage and discharged chemicals and flushed freighter tanks—the sources of pollution that had brought the river close to death. The Hudson is now a case study in the power of environmental action on the part of citizens who, in this case, have worked to return the river essentially to clear water. Good work, Pete Seeger, and good work, pop. May you both rest easy.

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