You just can’t make this stuff up: Lessons learned from John Cronin

By Terry Backer

Every so often in life we bump into someone who causes us to be redirected on a path different from where we thought we were headed. These chance collisions may not appear at the time to be of any great consequence to us. In fact, we may not even realize we have started another journey. I am a recipient of one such chance collision with John Cronin and my life and the lives of thousands were redirected in dramatic ways.

When I met John on the banks of the Hudson River I was a fisherman working with my family in Norwalk CT catching lobsters. At that time we were buying Buck Shad from fishermen on the Hudson to be used as lobster bait. We were struggling against the pollution of Long Island Sound that was damaging our way of life. Decades of neglect and abuse of the Sound’s water had left me and my community under the constant threat of loosing our livelihoods. On that day, unknown to me, my new education began.

The innate teacher and organizer in John immediately surfaced when he gauged the sense of frustration, anger and helplessness I and others imparted to him. John took on our cause as if it were his own. John arranged to meet with our group of fishermen and traveled to our dock in Norwalk to help organize the Connecticut Coastal Fishermen’s association. John’s zeal for people he didn’t know perplexed me for some time. I struggled to take the measure of the man. Over time I came to understand a number of things about John, one revelation was that he can not tolerate injustice. It was in the spirit of what is morally and legally right that John Cronin helped forge a group of fishermen into a force for change, one that would spread across the globe.

At this juncture in John’s life he was the Hudson Riverkeeper and his experiences in stopping pollution and holding those responsible accountable were replicable for Long Island Sound. John gathered the necessary talent and resources to help us bring successful challenges against the municipal sewage treatment plants that were causing the majority of the problems. Along with getting court enforceable time tables for the violators to come in to compliance, the new organization, Long Island Soundkeeper came into being.

Learning under the mentorship of John was challenging. The amount of information that was needed to be learned in the fields of law, science and organizational structure was staggering. Just to learn the details of the Clean Water Act and how to use it to our advantage would have been a year’s course work in itself. Yet with John the lessons never stopped at the material or the mechanics of the processes. Studying under John was also a study of John. Dotted along the lesson plan were John’s philosophies and his moral outlook on life. Almost everything you learn from John is presented with a sub-text that espouses what he believes to be right, moral and fair coupled with a challenge to your own thinking. Challenging your own thinking and preconceived notions and ideas is perhaps the fundamental ingredient for spiritual, moral and intellectual growth. I learned from John the value of being confident in what you believe yet aware that nothing is static including ones own evolution of spirit and thought.

As the newly minted Soundkeeper I was able to quickly build a string of successes based on John’s model, which would not have been possible without John’s almost daily guidance. John’s instruction went beyond the how to do it, to the underlying ideal and belief that it was immoral and unacceptable to allow the life sustaining environment to be debilitated, along with the lives of people who depend on it. It was this belief that John readily demonstrated that became the attraction for others. The idea that every day people could stand up and claim their birthright was infectious. People came from across the country seeking John’s council and to my surprise mine.

In a few short years the ranks of the Keepers grew to seven. Among them were Andy Wilner from New Jersey, Mike Herz from San Francisco, Joe Panye in the state of Maine, Ken Mosher in Seattle, Cynthia Potent on the Delaware RIver and Terry Taminmen from Santa Monica. It was at this point that John introduced yet another concept that would shape the future. John introduced the idea of forming an alliance of keepers. John’s idea was to bind like minded people together in a unique bottom up management structure that would provide support, development and most of all a common purpose for the common good. After several iterations, the Waterkeeper Alliance emerged. Today the Alliance boasts 188 autonomous Waterkeeper organizations in 16 countries on six continents. These groups have bound themselves together in an Alliance that transcends the tactics and strategies they use to the ideals that John embedded in the foundation starting with me. The Waterkeeper Alliance was formed in the mind of John. The ideals and principles that people matter and that the environment is inseparable from their well being is a consistent thread from Long Island Sound to India, South America, Moscow, Africa and dozens of points in between. Literally millions of people benefit every day from the work of Keepers. All of the keepers’ ancestry lies in the Hudson River and John Cronin’s mind and heart. John’s vision of a global alliance of Keepers continues to thrive and grow. Without John Cronin the Waterkeeper Alliance would not exist nor would the founding principals that persist in Keepers still today.

While John’s life has had an impact the lives of millions it is his impact on my life that I know best. Bumping into John sent me ricocheting into places, thoughts and reflections in a manner I had not before contemplated. Examining your thought process and beliefs and where those beliefs stem from is not always comfortable yet John challenged me to do so. It is a simple and well understood concept that things are not always as they appear yet few of us look behind the curtain of our own minds and it is this that I also learned from John. As an example of one thing I learn from John was not to project your own thinking on to another but to listen carefully to what they are really saying.

The better portion of two and one half decades has passed since I first stood with John at the river’s edge. My life’s trajectory has been quite different than I would have believed at that time. Having spent 18 years in the Connecticut House of Representatives, 22 years as Long Island Soundkeeper and a dozen as Vice President of the Waterkeeper Alliance, I believe I have been useful to God’s people. This journey was shaped with John Cronin’s help in many ways. John helped me understand how to look at things critically and pragmatically yet tempering my response with empathy and compassion. From John I learned many unspoken lessons one such lesson I cherish and remember every day. That lesson learned from John is that most people have better minds than they know they have. I learned that if you challenge people to leave behind their cultural and environmental conditioning they begin to see things from different angles and perspectives. If you can get them to let go for a moment of their hard and fast beliefs new worlds open for them to explore, much in the way John challenged me.

There is a Buddhist proverb, now perhaps considered a cliché but has been proven true in my case. It says, “When the student is ready the teacher will appear.” My life’s lessons had made my mind and soul ready to learn what John’s life lessons had readied him to teach. The synergy created between teacher and student was powerful and my life was made more useful and meaningful by my measure. I can not say that I benefited John equally but I can say that I have passed on his generosity to many others. Perhaps that is enough for John as the goal of any teacher is the passing on of knowledge.

In this accounting of the contributions John made to my life I have not recounted any quotes from or personal stories about John. I guess no celebration of someone’s life would be complete without at least one. I recall walking with a group of people in New York City. As we walked along the sidewalk a panhandler reached out begging for spare change. John reached into his pocket and fished out some money and handed it to the man. One of our group made mention that this panhandler was only going to spend it on booze or drugs. John turned to the person and replied with something along these lines of, there is honesty in what he is asking for, unlike a lot of other people, particularity the politicians (No offense taken John). I saw compassion in John’s action and in his response I saw some truth. I have used this retort many times since that day.

When I was asked to write something about John Cronin I found it hard not to tell my own story. I could not find a way to separate what has transpired in my life from the imprint John has had on it. We all learn much from many people. Often what we learn are facts and figures or methods and processes but few people stir our souls. Few people actually help unlock the potential of mind and spirit. In my case I can name several; my father Henry the fisherman, my mother Kaye the poet, Mrs. Rosenfield my fourth grade teacher, Father Zabowroski the priest, Brother Canous the humble framer of the seminary and John Cronin my friend.

I am not sure I can say anything more meaningful to me than calling someone a friend. John’s impact on my life is considerable. Every time I time think outside of my comfort zone, every time I challenge my own cultural and environmental conditioning there is a piece of what I learned from John. Every time I walk in to the state capitol or a meeting with high place executives or a representative of a foreign government I know that John helped me get there in any number of ways. I don’t really hold it against him but I’d like to offer John some advice. Please watch where you’re going from now on.

Terry Backer
Point No Point
Stratford CT