Exceptional Life of Environmental Pioneer Ed Wood
October 28, 2020
Look around Rhode Island. Some things that might immediately stand out are the ocean, dune-ruffled beaches, and the Superman Building. But go a little deeper and other highlights emerge: the river winding through the core of the state capital; the East Bay Bike Path carving its way from Providence to Bristol; the scenic and wild Wood-Pawcatuck watershed that cuts through Washington County. And peel the layers further back on these local gems, and you’ll find the fingerprints, notes, dreams, and hard work of the late Ed Wood.
“If you look around the state, there’s just a lot of things he had a hand in,” said Robert Bendick, who worked with Wood when the latter was director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).
When Wood passed away on Sept. 15 at age 79, Rhode Island lost one of its most passionate caretakers.
W. Edward Wood was born in 1941 in Sault Saint Marie, Ontario, Canada, but grew up on the outskirts of Detroit. He attended the University of Michigan, where he earned a degree in political science. After graduating in 1962, he joined the Marine Corps and spent a little more than a year serving in Vietnam.
His list of accomplishments as a young man grew to include a master’s degree in Japanese studies and a job as an Associate Press reporter in Indiana.
He moved to Rhode Island in 1970 to work as a reporter at the Providence Journal, but it was during his tenure as director of the recently formed DEM, a position he held from 1977 to 1982, where Wood found his true calling.
“He was dedicated to the cause of straightening out Rhode Island’s environment, which had a lot of problems,” said Bendick, who is currently the regional director for The Nature Conservancy in the Gulf of Mexico. “And he, himself, loved the outdoors and nature.”
It seems like divine providence that a man with the last name Wood would feel most at home amidst the flora and fauna.
“Dad loved the outdoors,” daughter Erika Wood wrote in an email. “He was an avid hiker. He was always very quiet on the trail. Although I doubt he would ever say it this way, I think being in nature allowed him to experience a level of inner peace and equilibrium, and mental clarity. He did a lot of thinking as he walked.”
And his thoughts, nurtured in nature, bore many fruits. As director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (DOT), a position he held after his post at DEM, Wood worked with Bendick — who succeeded him as DEM director — and architect Bill Warner to redirect the rivers through downtown Providence, changing the city forever.
“It required a bunch of money and cooperation between the two departments and most of the money for the major moving of rivers and building walkways and building bridges was DOT money,” Bendick said. “And so Ed was able to bring that federal and state money to the equation and DEM brought the resources for Waterplace Park … and it was just an example of how government should work, of looking for creative ideas and engaging the community and bringing resources to thinking very long-run about what Providence could be, and Ed was good at that, at all those things. That cooperation, that thinking creatively, and that cutting through the red tape to do good things.”
Bendick also worked with Wood on the East Bay Bike Path, another seminal infrastructure project that cements his legacy as a change-maker in the state.
But Wood’s passion for the environment and creating ways for people to enjoy it was as micro as it was macro. One project he was particularly passionate about was the creation of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association (WPWA), which was born as a joke on the eve of his retirement from DEM in 1982.
“He’s thrown into the founder category because of the story about the retirement party check with the fake name of an organization on it,” said Chris Fox, executive director of the WPWA. “Everybody contributed funds at the retirement party, and I think they had 1500 bucks or something and they put Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association on the check and said you’ll have to start this organization if you want to cash this check!”
So, Wood did.
In 1983, the WPWA was born. Since its inception, the organization has helped spearhead the University of Rhode Island Watershed Watch program and, after years of hard work, the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed finally received the federal wild and scenic designation last year. And through it all, Wood lent a guiding hand and ear to listen.
“He was what I call an enabler,” said Alan Desbonnet, WPWA board president. “Whenever there were issues or problems, he would sit down with people and figure out a way to enable them to do stuff.”
Never one to bask in the spotlight, Wood was more comfortable helping other people reach their potential, and often attempted to blur into the background whenever recognition was doled out.
“He was very much like the wizard of Oz, behind the curtain, pulling whatever levers needed to be pulled,” Fox said.
Behind his green curtain, Wood guided the WPWA, worked with the Hopkinton Land Trust to preserve the natural beauty in his own backyard, and, beyond the scope of Rhode Island, headed operations for the Clinton Health Access Initiative, a program that combats AIDS and other diseases in 39 developing countries.
He seemed to live — no, thrive — off of helping others.
“I don’t know whether anybody, even his family, have assembled a list of all the boards and fundraising efforts and different things that he did,” Bendick said. “Every place you look there’s something that he’s done that’s good for people.”
When he wasn’t helping save wildlife or setting up clinics in Africa, you could find Wood hiking, cooking his way through a master class, or tending to the Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc grapes in the vineyard that he and a group of his friends managed.
But all the while the cogs were still turning. He would still be thinking about his next project, thinking how he could tackle various problems big and small.
“He believed every problem had a solution, and every question had an answer,” his daughter wrote. “His endless curiosity drove him to figure out the solution, to find the answer.”
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