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The Influence of Washington: 
Making a Difference

 

During summer break at law school in 1964 I worked as a legislative officer for U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, researching, writing, and—the high point—sitting with him on the Senate floor as his researcher while he argued for, and won approval for, his legislation establishing the Sea Grant program.

I returned to Washington after graduating from law school to work in the then-new Department of Housing and Urban Development, as a member of the group developing the White House proposals for the “urban crisis” of the mid-1960s. It was intense and difficult work, but it was electrifying to see actual words and phrases that I had written down on my yellow legal pad appear in presidential proposals and speeches.

A year later in early 1967, I went back up to Capitol Hill to work as Legislative Assistant to Senator Ted Kennedy. The next year his brother Senator Robert Kennedy ran for president, and I was a national campaign coordinator during his short campaign. I helped to subdue his assassin, rode in the ambulance with the mortally-wounded Senator and his wife and sister Jean to the hospital, and grieved mightily with millions of others over the murder of this courageous and charismatic man. I continued to work for Ted Kennedy until 1970, when I returned with my wife and three young sons to Cambridge. 

These Washington experiences absolutely persuaded me that an individual can make a big difference if he or she chooses to do so, and this belief is also a motivating force for Oldways. This is an obvious truth in personal matters—we can get fat or remain thin, get married or stay single, and do volunteer work or avoid it.  But not very many people decide they want to make changes on a large scale, such as by running for president or governor or mayor, or for Congress or a state or local legislature. The lesson I took away from my time in Washington was well-said by Margaret Mead:  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” 

                 
The Ritz

In the 1970s I worked for the astute founder of a large real estate firm that, among other things, owned the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Boston. Through him, I grew friendly with Charles Ritz, owner of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Like me, Charles was an avid fisherman, and over the years we talked fishing for days and days. More important, he lectured me endlessly about the values of tradition in food and its preparations, insistent that this was a key ingredient of the Ritz’s success. 

He took me repeatedly to a room in the Ritz lined with impeccably-bound volumes of old Ritz menus and recipes that his father, Cesar Ritz, had collected. He opened one book after another, reminiscing about meals, foods, delights, pleasures.  We also returned again and again to the Ritz’s astounding wine cellars, not so much to drink (though we tasted), but for him to instruct me about how the Boston Ritz must build and maintain a similar cellar.

The last time I visited with him he was too ill to fish, and when we said goodbye, he gave me a clutch of his beautiful French split-bamboo rods. They are my talisman for remembering what he taught me about the power of traditions.

Earth Day

The 1970s woke me to “the environment,” at least in its organizational sense.  Like most thinking people who fish, search for wild foods, and garden, I was a conservationist, a great fan of Rachel Carson, and ripe to become an environmentalist. I was a member of the Senate staff group, which helped Senator Gaylord Nelson flesh out the details for the first Earth Day in 1970. I advised Senator Kennedy when he developed legislation to extend the Cape Cod National Seashore to parts of the offshore islands on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. With other committed individuals I organized and was president of a very aggressive land conservation group, which is now 25 years old. I wrote articles for legal journals about land conservation techniques. And for many years I kept bees, watching my hives gradually diminish in strength as the increasing spread of flower-garden pesticides ate into my bees’ vitality, finally killing them all off.
 

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