As one of her parting gestures after her single term in that office, New York State Senator Jen Metzger recently presented longtime activist Judy Mage, 85, with a commendation award for her “tireless work to bring new experiences in nature and the outdoors to Ulster County communities.” Among many things, Mage is the coordinator and “founding mother” of the Minnewaska Distance Swimmers’ Association (MDSA), as well as a continuing resolute voice on the New Paltz Bicycle/Pedestrian Committee.
In a fitting tribute to the decades-long activist, who in 1968 ran for vice president of the US with Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver on the Peace and Freedom Party line, two bald eagles appeared in the Harcourt-Nyquist Bird Sanctuary behind her longtime home off Huguenot Street.
Standing outside the Elting Memorial Library, Metzger thanked Mage for her determination in lobbying the state to decriminalize swimming in an underutilized section of Lake Minnewaska to experienced swimmers. They now have a quarter-mile loop to enjoy against the backdrop of the white conglomerate cliffs after passing a test, signing a waiver, and paying a nominal fee for membership.
“One of my greatest joys is to bike up to Lake Minnewaska and Lake Awosting on the carriage roads and enjoy a swim in those beautiful, pristine lakes,” said Metzger. Mage’s partner Tona Wilson and a few dozen friends and supporters had gathered around to applaud Mage for helping them to gain keys to the aqua castle and immerse themselves in one of the area’s most sublime sky lakes.
Mage’s tenacity in battling the state to allow for experienced swimmers to be able to enjoy the great delicacy of that park is legendary. There are pictures of Mage along with many other local swim and environmental activists conducting a “swim-in” in 2002 at Lake Minnewaska’s restricted eastern shore, treading water while holding up protest signs that read “No Swimming, No Peace,” and “Let Us Swim!”
Mage deflects much of the credit to others for this successful grassroots movement to allow bathers access. Those interviewed paid homage to Mage’s doggedness in pushing the infamously slow and reticent wheels of New York state government in their favor.
As friend and fellow MDSA member Addie Haas said, “Judy is a modest person and surprisingly shy. This recognition is a wonderful award for her.” Haas went on to note that Mage first “worked to save Minnewaska from being developed privately and making it available to everyone,” as a state park, “and then went on to make it accessible to distance swimmers.”
Haas has fond memories of skating with Mage and friends on the frozen Humpo Marsh and on the Wallkill River oxbow behind her home. “We were none of us young, but we sure had a great time playing tag,” she said. “Judy is one of the most caring people I know. She is always generous in her praise and recognition of people’s actions.” It was high time that some of the light was shone back on Mage, Haas added.
Susan Scher concurred: “I’ve known Judy only in the context of her tireless work to obtain permission for people to swim freely at Minnewaska. Even if this were her sole accomplishment on behalf of the public, it is quite an achievement, given the years of effort this required. Imagine battling the bureaucracy of New York State for so many years and succeeding! Then she (and, I believe, two other hardworking women) worked for many years more to organize and monitor the swimming community, so we didn’t lose this precious gift. Judy is a real mensch and totally deserves the New York State Senate commendation award.”
Rena Blumenthal testified to the joy that Mage and her cohorts of aqua-activists have brought to so many. “I moved to New Paltz in 2003, one year after MDSA started. MDSA has been one of the most delightful components of my New Paltz life,” she said. “In the summer, I’m at Minnewaska almost every day – not only because it’s a beautiful, safe place for distance swimming, but also because of the relaxed camaraderie of the beach. Judy was a key player in working with the state to make MDSA happen, but she also helped create, and works hard to maintain, that relaxed, positive spirit. I’m deeply grateful for everything she has done, and continues to do, as the Queen Bee of MDSA. It has enriched my life enormously.”
“Judy’s having co-founded long-distance swimming at Lake Minnewaska: That achievement has literally given many hundreds of swimmers the best swim of their lives. Her persistence and energy for that goal are legendary,” said Renee Hack.
When the state took over Minnewaska, said Mage, “They took away the swimming opportunities we had always enjoyed. But as to what pushed me into action…I along with hundreds of other swimmers were really angry and very sad about being restricted to that tiny fish tank once the state took over.”
What was the most challenging part of this fight for open swimming? “The battle was to not get discouraged and not get turned aside when the park authorities that we wrote to just ignored our ideas,” Mage rrsponded. “They stonewalled us, and it was an uphill battle to persist and keep bugging them. But as the number of our swimming advocates and activists grew, and we got state politicians involved and carried out a couple of demonstrations, they found it harder to ignore us.”
Mage was dressed in a pair of red boots that she said matched her red mask, noting, “I’ve never owned a pair of red boots before. I hope you get them in the picture!”
Along with Metzger, William Weinstein and Daniel Lipson of the Bike/Ped Committee championed Mage’s role in advocating for the rights of pedestrians and cyclists to travel safely in a car-centric world. According to Weinstein, Lipson and several others, Mage was key to getting the shoulders constructed along South Putt Corners Road, where many students, teachers and residents had to travel to and from the high school on bikes or on foot in perilous conditions.
“In 2010, high-school students walking and biking to New Paltz High School were competing in the traffic lane with motor vehicles moving at 45 to 50 miles per hour,” said Weinstein. “We thought the time had come to put decent shoulders on the road. Judy suggested that the committee carry a petition to county executive Mike Hein to demand this change. One committee member expressed his reticence about taking this kind of public action. Judy delivered a lecture on the right of all citizens to petition their government, and within minutes the committee agreed to draw up such a petition and carry it around town.”
Before the end of that year, Hein held a press conference in front of the police station on South Putt Corners Road, announcing that the road was slated for renovation. It was Mage’s strong vision of citizen involvement, her insistence that citizens not only can move mountains but are obligated to do so, Weinstein said, that caused this critical infrastructure improvement to happen.
Blumenthal emphasized that Mage never called attention to herself. “She is a model of sustained and joyful activism.”
Daniel Lipson of the Bike/Ped Commission said, “In her role on the committee, Judy has always impressed me and other members with her instinct for nudging government officials by writing letters and/or organizing rallies and petition drives. “Her heart has always been in the right place,” said Daniel Lipson of the Bike/Ped Commission. “I don’t see any ego in her activism, which isn’t always the case.”
Misha Harnick noted that Mage was “just a wonderful personality, with a most interesting life lived, and still a great source of wisdom and wit. How many people throw their own 85th birthday party so that friends can enjoy it, rather than having fun at a funeral without her?”
As all noted, Mage is not all activism. She is a proud partner and mother and grandmother, a friend who enjoys deep personal relationships. Her right-fighting is equally measured by her love. To celebrate that, her son Jeremy Mage, along with her grandchild, led everyone in song from a telephone FaceTime session in a small village in Switzerland, where he lives.
The song, of course, was an old freedom song that began with the line, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around!”
For additional information about MDSA and how to become a member, visit Minnewaskaswimmersorg.