I started as the new executive director of CRWA in December of 1990. During my second week, I made the trek over to Newtonville to spend the afternoon with Rita, CRWA’s iconic second executive director. She had served CRWA from 1973 to 1988.
We wandered around in her garden – she had no lawn, every square inch planted with shrubs and trees and flowers – and talked about the organization, the Charles River, politics, getting things done, her sense of priorities. She was white-haired, short, and, I was pretty sure, tough as nails. She was direct, and she had penetrating blue eyes that danced when she laughed.
Over the years, we became good friends. She’d give me advice now and again, and let me know when I’d gone astray. Occasionally, she’d regale me with stories of her days. In 1974 she had somehow gotten the Army Corps of Engineers to protect 13 square miles of wetlands in the Upper Charles (the Natural Valley Storage Area), the largest such acquisition in the Corps’ history, then or now. She gave all the credit to the New England Region Colonel. Since the acquisition of wetlands for flood storage, as opposed to the construction of levies and dikes, has never been duplicated by the Corps before or since, I believe she was, perhaps, overlooking her own significant contribution.
She held the first river swim, in 1979, at Forest Grove Park in Waltham. She started the Run of the Charles Canoe and Kayak Race in 1983. She worked closely with Governor Mike Dukakis on addressing river park issues, and she quietly worked with him and Senator Ted Kennedy to ensure that the industrial areas on both sides of the river became parkland after the New Charles River Dam opened in 1976 below the old Museum of Science dam. That area is now home to the new parks created as mitigation for the construction of the Central Artery.
In my mind, however, Rita’s greatest single contribution to Boston and the environment was convincing all of us that the restoration of the terribly polluted Charles River was central to the future of the entire metropolitan region. Convince us she did.
All of us owe her a deep debt of gratitude.
Read Rita Barron's obituary in the Boston Herald.