Tribute to Charlotte Sagoff – Environmental Issues

Tribute from Mary Michelman:

Charlotte Sagoff
July 5, 1914 – April 23, 2007

Acton lost a great friend, and important community leader, when Charlotte Sagoff, age 92, Acton resident for more than 25 years, founder of Acton Earth Day, and former President of Acton Citizens for Environmental Safety, (ACES), died recently at her son’s home in New York. Charlotte, who had until recently been living in Cambridge, MA, died peacefully after lunch in the garden, in the sunshine, on April 23, 2007. Charlotte Sagoff was a remarkable woman; someone who truly cared for her community, and who worked tirelessly to make Acton, and our world, a better place.

Charlotte was an inspiration to me and to so many others. Did you know that in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s two of Acton’s Town wells, supplying about 40% of Acton’s public drinking water were polluted and had to be shut down? Chemicals from the WR Grace company’s industrial site in Acton had contaminated our groundwater and our drinking water supply. Something needed to be done! So in the early 1980s, Charlotte and other concerned Acton residents formed Acton Citizens for Environmental Safety, (ACES). They worked relentlessly, along with local, state, and federal officials, to make sure that Grace stopped adding pollutants to the soils and water, and started cleaning up the contamination.

I am the current president of ACES, but I am also a latecomer to the scene, having moved to Acton in 1993. As I review and comment on current technical documents on the WR Grace site, I am always aware of how lucky Acton is to have had Charlotte leading the charge to hold Grace accountable; and to make the Town, Acton Water District, the Commonwealth, and EPA pay attention and take action. I inherited the easy end of the fight. She fought the early, difficult battles. Charlotte made it impossible for WR Grace, (or anyone else), to get away with brushing off the fact that Grace had polluted Acton’s drinking water supply, and needed to clean it up. More than 25 years later, Grace is still working on cleaning it up, and the Acton stakeholders are still trying to make sure it is done right.

Charlotte was a multifaceted woman, involved in many social justice, as well as environmental issues. Some of her earlier experiences included being an Acton Food Coop founding member, a counselor at both Simmons and Wheelock Colleges, a member of the Acton Board of Health, and a teacher at a Japanese internment camp in California. Charlotte also founded Acton Earth Day back in 1996, an annual celebration which she organized for many years, both at the Acton Arboretum, and at NARA Park. I remember the first Earth Day celebration in the Acton Arboretum, with Charlotte and her team of “Earthlings”. The event was not just a one day affair. Charlotte reached out to the schools and involved them and other community groups in the preparations leading up to the day. At one Earth Day event, she even arranged for WR Grace to give a public tour of its then recently capped former landfill on its property.

Charlotte excelled at connecting people and inspiring them to take actions to help improve the world around us. She never paid much heed to awards she received, but the following quote from a 1998 EPA Merit Award in her honor, is right on target: “Regardless of the issue, Sagoff’s ability to motivate others into action and her long-term commitment to preserving our environment are unwavering.” As anyone who worked with her can tell you; she was always assigning people tasks, (research the possibility of using bioremediation to clean WR Grace chemicals out of our groundwater; help with Earth Day publicity; write thank you notes), and we gladly carried them out!

I loved Charlotte and will miss her greatly; her energy, determination; great sense of humor; and her commitment to making Acton, and the world, a safer, better place.


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