Remembering Dan Guenther, activist and environmentalist

Dan Guenther on Brook Farm in 2006. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Dan Guenther, a well-known figure in the New Paltz community for decades, died while shoveling snow during the storm that hit this area on February 1, at the age of 77. Guenther and wife Ann are inseparable in the minds of many who know them both, because they were of one mind when it came to the wide variety of projects they have undertaken over the years. While there was a wide variety of issues and activities that they have addressed, the thematic threads that bind them together are caring for the planet and caring for other human beings.

Standing well over six feet tall and known more for a smile than a frown, many have used the phrase “gentle giant” to describe the man. That great height is not what made Guenther stand out so much as the ability to get others to work together on projects such as starting several community-supported farms in the region, establishing the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, converting old homes to new uses such as the ones that are now the Quaker meeting house on North Manheim Boulevard and the youth center on Main Street, planting trees on that same Main Street, and turning the family home on Center Street into a Halloween extravaganza that rivaled — some say surpassed — haunted attractions built and run by professionals.

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Guenther was particularly good at starting projects, often moving on to a new challenge when the systems were in place to continue to current endeavor. In many cases the man proved to be a thought leader, such as with community-supported agriculture, climate change, rail trails and solar. It’s now easy to find a CSA to join locally, there are citizen and government initiatives to address climate change, trails in New York are being crystallized into a state-spanning Empire State Trail and there are a number of government grants to assist home- and business owners either to install solar panels or participate in community solar programs. Dan Guenther began working in all of these areas when no such wider support systems existed, and did so by wrangling labor and donations from those inspired by an example of getting up and doing the work.

Early on in New Paltz

Dan and Ann Guenther met in New York City where Ann — a naturalist by training and Chicagoan by birth — was working in public relations at NASA and Manhattan native Dan was applying an engineering degree by serving as clerk of the works building high-rise apartment buildings. Having spent summers with a grandfather in New Paltz, Guenther apparently discovered a rural spirit that did not agree with urban living. The pair moved to a “ramshackle house” to renovate in the Vly, where they reared Linda Brook and son Mark Forest for more than ten years as part of the “back to the land” movement of the time. During those years the two children had a love of agriculture instilled in them, which has endured.

It was around 1983 that the family moved to what to Brook felt like a booming metropolis, New Paltz. Farming turned into gardening and gardening turned into sharing wheelbarrows full of produce with neighbors. In later years, they would bring produce to hand out anywhere they had built relationships, such as the hardware store.

Guenther put his back into a number of heavy projects early on in New Paltz, such as converting the old rail bed into a trail and building the first Hasbrouck Park playground. In both cases, friend David Miller was tapped for signage. Miller was superintendent of Wallkill Correctional Facility at the time, and arranged for an inmate with a router to make the signs by each road crossing of the trail, and also to make the hundreds of planks that bore the names of donors to that first playground. Inmates not only had shops to learn such trades a generation ago, they also worked in the community as a form of service. Miller supplied volunteer inmates to make concrete benches for the trail, and to cut back the brush along its length.

Halloween productions

Brook refers to Halloween as the “crowning achievement” of their family. The productions happened for more than 20 years, with Ann often coming up with ideas that Dan had to implement. “We made some choices that I’m sure damaged some people forever.” (Not everyone, though: some parents, like KT Tobin, would not bring their young ones at all; being allowed to the Guenther house was something of a rite of passage.) They also made choices that had a profound impact on the family home, such as the year Dan cut off the end of the porch to turn it into a pirate ship, or the Y2K theme in ‘99 that included upside-down cars in the yard. Guenther “had a jester component” that came out in those designs each year, carrying on the prankster reputation earned in college. “It got bigger and bigger,” to the point where neighbors started to complain about the number of people on their quiet street every Halloween. It was also “an incredible test of my family’s strength as a unit. I thought they would get divorced every year.”

After meeting the Guenthers as an employee at True Value, Eileen Hedley was recruited by friend April Warren to help out over the last few years of the Halloween event at their home, and the short time they used the Hasbrouck Park playground after that. “We met in their back room on Center Street,” said Hedley. “Ann would have ideas and we would brainstorm” over healthy snacks. Of the ideas, “the grosser the better.” Hedley spent many autumn hours helping to turn those ideas into reality and was awed by Guenther’s skill. “He could build anything with ease.” Again, though, the mentoring aspect came thorough as Guenther “helped me feel more competent with tools, which helped support me through anything.”

Jim and Janet O’Dowd met the Guenthers through those Halloween events and soon after started gathering regularly at the O’Dowd home to make plans to save the world. “My kids called it the ‘save the world group,’” O’Dowd recalls, and “it was the forerunner of all our projects.”

The Johnny Appleseed of CSAs

Called the Johnny Appleseed of CSAs in the mid-Hudson Valley, Guenther helped launch the Phillies Bridge Farm Project on the Gardiner border, the Poughkeepsie Farm Project at Vassar, Common Ground in Beacon and the Brook Farm Project on Lenape Lane. The process of establishing Phillies Bridge speaks to the ways that Guenther worked to achieve a goal. The property on Phillies Bridge Road had been a farm for over a century, established by members of the Lefevre family and Guenther convinced then-owners Jim and Mary Ottaway to allow it to be farmed again for this purpose. When the project was launched just before the turn of the century, members didn’t just pick up their shares each week; Guenther convinced them to help harvest the crops they were paying to obtain.

“His efforts really impacted my life personally,” wrote Martha Cheo. “Without Dan, I may not have ended up in New Paltz. His founding of Phillies Bridge Farm Project provided me with my first job in this community back in 1999. I remained there for ten years, always feeling his support.”

Robb Magee met the whole Guenther family by becoming a volunteer at Common Ground in 2003, which was on a New York DEC site. Linda had committed to farming there for two years, but became pregnant with delivery expected during the growing season; Magee agreed first to spell Brook for a few weeks, and then to take over entirely, after an “intensive” training regimen under brother Mark Forest. Magee wondered why someone without farming experience would be asked; it was Guenther’s judge of the man’s character that led to the request. “It rooted me” in the area for life, Magee said.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better father,” said Brook, because “mentorship was a really big thing for him,” and Guenther was supportive of whatever Brook wanted to accomplish in life. “Anything he learned he wanted to share immediately, especially the farming.” At the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, which was created from a farm that had fed faculty and students, “those Vassar kids knew nothing about dirt,” but working with young people was a particular source of joy.

April Warren also worked at Phillies Bridge, crediting that period with instilling a lifelong love of gardening.

Brook acknowledged that Guenther’s skills and interests lended themselves more to starting projects, speculating that the man found it difficult to work long-term with people “who couldn’t put in the same 70 hours a week.” However, that’s not to say that Guenther abandoned what was begun. The closed-in back porch of the town’s youth center was designed and built by Guenther this century, and in the past few years Dan and Ann worked to replace the beams, roof and crumbling foundation of the barn at Phillies Bridge from a certain doom.

Magee, who like Guenther was a contractor by trade and had spent several years personally shoring up infrastructure at Phillies Bridge while on the board there, knew better than anyone what a challenge Guenther was attempting. “I knew the problems with that barn, how large they were on all levels . . . the size and weight . . . it was not a tiny undertaking, and I didn’t feel comfortable that I could have done it. The difference is because the way he connected with other people allowed him to take on that job.”

Saving the environment

That ability was closely tied to the willingness to help others. Cheo recalls, “When my husband and I were adding a straw bale addition to our house, Dan showed up one day with other strong helpers to raise the roof truss, asking for nothing in return — a true Amish-style barn-raising moment.”

For about six months last decade, Guenther worked in the trenches of the environmental movement in West Virginia where protestors were trying to stop the practice of removing entire mountaintops to get at the coal within. “I was never really clear on his role, but he was absolutely aghast at the situation,” Brook said. Jim Ottaway recalls that Guenther was building shelters for protestors during that time, and it seared itself into Miller’s memory as evidence of Guenther’s passion for and commitment to caring for the planet.

Brook said that the Climate Action Coalition was Guenther’s last big project, and through that group Guenther touched many more lives. Member Miriam Strouse recalls how the weekly meetings always resulted in action more than paperwork. When they turned to promoting solar, “Instead of applying for grants and dealing with compliance, we just started a pilot program to get things going quickly.” Strouse also pointed to “tireless letters to the editor” about climate issues and Guenther’s willingness to “make a hundred phone calls” to line up volunteers for a particular project or protest.

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O’Dowd notes that environmental issues were a consistent focus of Guenther’s for at least two decades, but it was also one of the ways Guenther sought to build community. The couple owned a set of national flags of all the member states of the United Nations, which Guenther would hang as a reminder of the need to work together to stabilize this fragile planet. Guenther hung them at the Earth Day fair on Huguenot Street, for example. “It was a hard job, but that was typical,” recalls O’Dowd.

Magee is also involved with Interfaith Action, the group now responsible for that annual fair and also spoke about those “hundreds of flags.”

That’s just how it was with Dan Guenther, particularly in those final years: a passion for saving the environment for all life. “Any public workshop or symposium on the environment, you expected Dan to be there,” recalls Magee. “He went into climate action full on,” including the organization 350, that was founded by Bill McKibben. That led into forming the Climate Action Coalition (CAC) and as a result, Magee believes, galvanizing the movement in New Paltz.

Rosalyn Cherry remembers the order differently; a charter CAC member, Cherry recalls helping to organize the activists who formed a large “350” in Hasbrouck Park while photographer Lauren Thomas took pictures from a cherry-picker. Guenther created novel ways to get the message about climate change out, Cherry says, by setting up a table at any event where there was space, such as at the campus farmers’ market or the county fair. These included demonstrating how easy it is to hang clothes to dry and setting up a station to measure how much water is wasted if it’s left running while brushing one’s teeth. Cherry credits the Guenthers with getting eight busloads of people from New Paltz to the People’s Climate March in New York City when it was held in 2014.

As with teaching them to farm, Cherry says that what was most important to Guenther was “teaching young people to care about climate change.”

One of the people inspired by that work, Janelle Peotter, is now coordinator of the climate-smart communities program in New Paltz. “I met Dan and Ann not long after I moved here just over five years ago when I saw a paragraph in the New Paltz Times about the Climate Action Coalition. I was immediately hooked. Dan and Ann started the Climate Action Coalition and he inspired us to do more in every way, every day. As a mentor, Dan encouraged me to learn more about the Climate Smart Communities process, which I have since dove into head first. As community builders, Dan and Ann have had countless dinners at their place where they brought together people that Dan thought should meet. He believed in the power of action through hospitality! I have never seen Dan walk into a meeting without bringing food to share, flowers or my personal favorite, maple sap to drink. My only regret is that I didn’t know Dan longer. I have heard wonderful stories of his infamous Halloween extravaganzas and his farming and gardening skills are legendary. Dan’s legacy is to inspire all of us to not be complacent but to take action and take personal responsibility to make this world a better place.”

“Danecdotes” to remember the man

Dan Guenther died shoveling snow in a blizzard. This is second winter in a row in which a prominent New Paltz resident died while shoveling snow — former mayor Tom Nyquist passed away in this manner in December, 2019 — and some experts advise against anyone over 55 shoveling snow at all. Those who knew him agree that Guenther would not have heeded that advice. “I couldn’t think of a finer death,” said Brook. Dan “would not have done well with a slow hospital death.” A tenant once suggested to Guenther that someone could be hired to plow the drive, and was told, “If I die shoveling it, so be it.” Brook added, “It’s healing to know that he would have approved of his own death.”

Guenther’s published obituary suggests donations to either the Phillies Bridge Farm Project or the Climate Action Coalition in lieu of flowers, particularly since a large gathering cannot be organized at this time. However, what Ann wants especially is stories to be compiled as “Danecdotes” to remember the man. Brook reported that Ann said, “I want them to be ‘true grit,’” rather than simply niceties, for example, “He was a pain in the ass, but got work done.” Those gritty remembrances can be mailed to Ann Guenther at 145 Mountain Rest Road in New Paltz.

There are 2 comments

  1. Spatzcat

    Carl Jung’s American heir, James Hillman, wrote that that one’s ultimate legacy was to become irreplaceable. Though I found Dan’s LTE’s during Trump’s tenure far too cheerleady for the Democratic wing of the military-industrial-climate-war machine, Dan led an exemplary life – emminately irreplaceable.

  2. Jazzcat

    One lesson I learned from Dan. You can be born into wealth, give up your worldly possessions, but what the rich can’t renounce is their uncritical belief in their own agency.

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