Stoddart said she hopes the association inspires children to “fall in love” with the river and want to protect it.

By Catherine Jones


SHIRLEY — “One person can do the work of 1000,” Marion Stoddart says in the film, “The Work of 1000,” that aired at Hazen Memorial Library.

She was quoting from an inspirational radio program she heard one Sunday. The statement seemed to strike Stoddart, who said that, at the time, she thought simply “Wow.”

The 30-minute documentary, created by Susan Edwards, of Pepperell, highlights the struggles and triumphs that Stoddart went through in her efforts to clean up the Nashua River. A river which, during the 1960s, was considered to be one of the 10 most polluted rivers in America.

Born in 1928 in Reno, Nevada, Stoddart grew up in the desert town of Fernley, a tiny community of 250 people where she said the best thing that happened during the day was when the Greyhound bus stopped. She wanted to leave school as soon as possible, she said. So, without telling her family, she found a way to graduate high school in three years.

The next significant milestone the film spotlights was when Stoddart met her husband Hugh while he was a student at Caltech. When he moved to Massachusetts to do graduate work at MIT, he invited her to visit him. She felt like she had come to a foreign country when she visited New England for the first time, she said, noting differences in behavior and attire between herself and the women in Massachusetts.

“I always wore Levis and the young women here … were wearing dresses,” she recalled. Over Christmas vacation, she and Hugh decided to get married and their life together began.

Believing herself to be unexceptional, intellectually or creatively, Stoddart said she thought she could be supportive of her husband, who she describes as “different that anyone else I knew” and “very smart.”

“I did not feel that there was anything special that I could do,” she said in the film. “But I felt that, marrying Hugh, I’d be able to help support him (to) create some wonderful things.”

In 1962, Marion and Hugh Stoddart moved to Groton, Massachusetts, which Hugh liked so much he wanted them to live there for the rest of their lives, she said. She was surprised by the idea, thinking incredulously “What?” She began to wonder what she ought to do with her life, she said.

Finding a purpose

During this time, before the Federal Clean Water Act or any other laws governing river pollution were passed, “the rivers in the United States were in terrible shape,” according to John Duff, Ph.D, a professor of environmental law and policy who was quoted in the film. And the Nashua River was among the worst, he said.

Ellen DiGeronimo, a former Fitchburg city counselor, recalled how bad it was. “We had a game … what color is the river going to be today?” she said in the film.

At the time, the Nashua River ran red or green or orange, the dye of whatever color paper the mills were producing that day. But that wasn’t its only source of pollution. “Everything was going into the rivers,” said Duff. “Anything that was left over from any industrial use was going into the rivers.”

The film shows two young boys with a sign that reads, “Hold your nose! Nashua River ahead,” and Massachusetts residents interviewed in the film said fumes from the river were strong.

Stoddart recalls being in the backyard with her children when her purpose in life came upon her. “That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to restore the river,” she remembers thinking.

It proved to be a difficult ambition but Stoddart was determined. Growing up in the desert, where water was scarce, she knew how precious water is and felt that it was important for future generations, she said. More importantly, she had a vision of the Nashua River as it could be, beautiful, clean and teeming with fish. She wanted people to be able to enjoy the river again, perhaps even swim in it.

“Many people feel they need to know all the steps,” Stoddart said in her talk after the film. “When you commit, you will find a way.” She did find a way, beginning by collecting petition signatures to get the paper mills to use filters.

At first, Stoddart had few supporters other than the League of Women Voters, who helped her connect with public officials she might not otherwise have had access to.

There were concerns that people would lose jobs. “Which would you rather have,” Stoddart recalls residents being asked, “clean water or your jobs?”

In the film, Stoddart’s daughter, Heather Barros, remembers being told “Your mother’s crazy, you know,” and recollects death threats. “It didn’t stop her,” Barros says.

Stoddart got past the controversy, eventually presenting thousands of signatures to Massachusetts governor, John Volpe, along with a bottle of dirty Nashua River water. The governor was moved, stating, “I’m going to keep this bottle on my desk to remind me (of) what needs to be done.”

After the Massachusetts Clean Water Act passed in 1972, her vision moved a little closer to reality. When a wastewater treatment plant was built, the result was immediate. “Suddenly you could see the rocks,” said Stoddart.

Today, the Nashua River is a healthier river, no longer smelling of sewage and again provides a habitat for wildlife. But there’s still more work to be done. The Nashua River Watershed Association, a nonprofit founded by Stoddart in 1969, is dedicated to the life-long task of protecting the river and improving its quality.

Life lessons

After the film, Stoddart shared some “life lessons,” gathered through the years. “Create a vision of what you would like to have in life,” she said, adding that there are “so many visionaries” in or from Shirley.

She also stressed the importance of committing to your vision, reminding the audience that it is always a lifetime commitment and the work is never done.

“Be passionate about what you care about,” she continued. “You don’t need to be super smart or super anything” to make a difference.

“Surround yourself with positive-thinking people” she advised. “Never, ever associate with negative-thinking people.” It’s like a magnet, Stoddart explained. Negative energy simply brings you down while positive energy can produce what some might call miracles.

“Educate yourself,” she said, as she did during her quest to clean up the Nashua. She needed to learn about laws, she said, and, in the process, she learned that there were very few laws or agencies governing water in the 1960s.

“Educate others,” she continued. Share information and identify stakeholders.

Because Stoddart was not originally from Massachusetts, she didn’t know people here, she said, but she met local leaders via the League of Women Voters.

“All change starts at the local level and works up,” Stoddart counseled. “Officials want to know what their constituents think.”

“Always be open to every possibility,” she said. “We need to make friends.”

Friends such as the commander of the former Fort Devens, who called to inform her that the military base had a vested interest in helping her cause. “What can I do to help?” he asked. He gave Stoddart’s organization everything they needed and more, she said, including use of base buildings and staff.

She also recalled a politician telling her he could help if she could tie her work to high school dropouts from disadvantaged families. So, with the help of some Green Berets, Stoddart’s group gave jobs to these at-risk youth, cleaning up the river.

“Ask for what you want,” she advised, “not just what you’re willing to settle for,” referencing her internal struggle over whether to ask for swimming as a goal of the Nashua River cleanup.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, remember that “the job is never done,” Stoddart said.

Environmental Education Director Mary Marro talked about the NRWA’s “River Classroom” and other efforts to educate youth. She encourages everyone to volunteer or become a member of the organization, and she encourages schools to participate in NRWA programs.

Stoddart said she hopes the association inspires children to “fall in love” with the river and want to protect it.