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Fridays with Fred: The EnvironVan and the ‘Huck Finns of Ecology’

February 28, 2013 at 5:36 pm

As the sun began to wane across the Rock River, a small group gathered around the 18-and-a-half-foot Starcraft Motorhome parked next to Chamberlin Hall of Science. Two students checked on-board equipment before shaking hands with their friends and a few wistful-looking geology professors and climbing aboard. The engine revved, hands waved, and Beloit College’s “EnvironVan” set off on its maiden voyage. The date was September 15, 1970.


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At first glance, the plan proposed by the geology department seemed simple enough. Two students would take environmental education on the road, visiting countless schools in rural communities no more than 10 miles from the Mississippi River. The proposal intrigued college officials, who saw it as another way to promote Beloit’s unique educational vision as well as provide good press. One student, Greg Fernette’72, had already committed to the project and another, Alan Crossley’72, soon joined up. Their work during the 14-week trip would fulfill the Field Term requirement of the Beloit Plan-era. College staff contacted schools and began to create an intensive itinerary and speaking schedule. Others secured funding for needed supplies and fitted-out the van, which served as combination home, library, laboratory, and conference center. Local merchants supplied discounted and even gratis equipment. Beloit Sign/Design painted EnvironVan’s eye-catching logo. 

Meanwhile, in August, Fernette and Crossley hopped into a car and made a madcap 12-day dash along the Mississippi River, snapping color photographs, collecting geological specimens and above all surveying sights for potential field trips. Along the way they discovered some disturbing evidence. A town might get its drinking water from the river upstream, while dumping their sewage downstream, which was upstream to the next town. Close to 40 communities in Iowa poured raw sewage into the Mississippi because they had no treatment plants. And they found plenty of other useful fodder for their talks. By mid-September they were ready.

For over three months the two students followed the course of the Mississippi River, beginning near its source at Brainerd, Minn., and winding up in Donaldsville, La., near the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way they presented slide show lectures to over 24,000 students at 78 schools, while also hosting on-site field trips to students and service groups on Saturdays. They focused on an overall view of the Mississippi River region's geographic and geologic changes over time. Featuring what the St. Louis Dispatch described as “a mixture of humor and shock treatment,” they talked about the human impact from urban areas and farmland, from dams and locks to industrial pollution and raw sewage. And they talked about solutions, nation-wide and locally as well as urging personal responsibility, including individual action. 

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Greg Fernette put it this way: "We're finding so many people who think of pollution only in terms of the big industrial centers. We’re trying to alert them to what’s happening to the environment of their own farms and villages. We point out that not even the remotest crossroads is immune to deterioration.” Alan Crossley added, “The parents of many of the kids we meet farm near the Mississippi. They’re the ones who are hurt when it floods. We’re trying to explain that management of the watershed is desperately needed. Unplanned use of the land is turning floods into disasters.”

Their 6,000 mile odyssey began to attract significant press. The Wisconsin State Journal dubbed the two “the Huck Finns of Ecology” while the New York Times described them as “traveling evangelists, preaching the gospel of ecology and damning the sins of pollution.” At Nauvoo, Ill., an ABC-TV crew filmed their formal presentation to 400 students and then followed them to a hands-on ecology lesson along one of the Mississippi’s mighty banks. Later on, the two appeared on NBC’s Today Show. Eventually, Smithsonian did a feature on EnvironVan. The Great River Road Association declared that the EnvironVan program was the first of its kind conducted by a college.

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Through post-visit questionnaires, the college kept track of the impact EnvironVan had on some of the communities it visited. Many students, with the encouragement of Beloit’s two very committed young environmentalists, formed school ecology clubs, which organized efforts to clean up local streams, riverbanks, and nearby roads.  One school collected eight tons of broken glass and discarded bottles for recycling, while another forced their local bottling company to service soda machines with returnable bottles. 

The national publicity generated by EnvironVan came to the attention of the U.S. Office of Education, which granted the college $41,000 to help purchase and equip five EnvironVans for the fall of 1971. Five pairs of students visited schools along other waterways in the Rock and Wisconsin River valleys, the Lake Michigan shoreline, the Miami River Valley of Ohio, and elsewhere. EnvironVan director and math professor Tom Renfrow explained that the program pushed “environmental education out of its ivory tower and out into the community where it’s really needed.” That fall, EnvironVan visited 265 schools and civic groups and the students spoke to 95,000 people. 

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Although the EnvironVan program did not survive, it remains one of Beloit College’s notable examples of partnership between students, faculty, and staff and as a benchmark of its longstanding commitment to issues of ecology and the environment.

Click here to read previous installments of Fridays with Fred.