"When I was young, I wanted to save the world. In my middle years, I would have been content to save my country. Now, I just want to save the dunes." -- the late U.S. Sen. Paul Douglas, D-Ill.
Sylvia Troy loved the Indiana Dunes as a girl growing up in New York City.
"My father had National Geographic," she said from her Beverly Shores living room overlooking Lake Michigan. "There was a 1917 article in National Geographic about the Dunes and I just fell in love."
Troy, now 90, was one of the early leaders of what was then known as the Save the Dunes Council, a group founded by Dorothy Buell in 1952 with one goal: Preserving the Dunes as a national lakeshore.
As the group prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary with a gala next weekend, founding members and new leaders are pausing to reflect on the early days and looking toward the challenges that lie ahead.
"It's so similar to today with politics playing a role, questions about sustainability, protection of water," said Nicole Barker, executive director of Save the Dunes. "We're still striving to save the Dunes because we know they will never truly be saved."
"A terrific struggle"
Troy and her husband moved from New York City to Whiting after he completed his service in the military. Shortly thereafter, she read about a dinner being hosted by the Save the Dunes Council.
"I went to the dinner and I met these extraordinary people, Herb and Charlotte Read and the (Ruth and Ed) Osann family," she said. "It was a very close-knit group, very articulate and they had one vision in view and that was a park in the Indiana Dunes.
"I don't know if I fell in love with the people or the project more."
The Reads, fellow pioneers in the group, were married in September 1952 and are also celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary.
"The first check we wrote on our joint account was to pay for that fall dinner of the Save the Dunes Council," Herb Read said.
In the early years, only women were allowed to join Buell's group.
The first thing Troy did was start a Calumet Chapter of the Save the Dunes Council.
"I realized there were many people in the Calumet region that were interested in the Dunes," she said.
Troy said the fight to get Congress to establish the property as National Park Service property wasn't easy.
"It was a terrific struggle," Troy said. "To tell you the honest truth, I never thought it would happen, but I underestimated the group and the political power of Sen. Paul Douglas."
Save the Dunes Council founder Dorothy Buell was 65 when she started the group in her Ogden Dunes home in 1952. Those who knew her said she was tiny, always dressed in gloves and a dress, and tireless when it came to her efforts to preserve the Dunes.
"One of my favorite quotes of hers was, 'The Save the Dunes Council reminds me of an old man who had two teeth,' then there was a significant pause and she'd say, 'but they met,'" Troy said of Buell. "It was funny, but it was so true."
Buell went door to door, asking neighbors for their support. Eventually, she sent a hand-written letter to Douglas, a Chicago Democrat, asking for his support of a national park in Chicago's backyard.
"She was not political, but she had this wonderful way of bringing politicians together for this common vision," Troy said.
By the time the bill passed on Nov. 5, 1966, Buell was 80.
Buell was the first president of the group. Troy was the second, serving from 1967 to 1976.
"I didn't realize what I was getting into," Troy said. "We just took it step by step. Somehow it was a convergence of all of these gifted people in various fields and it worked beautifully."
"It was very much a family and it still is."
Troy said she finds it "amazing that it has been 60 years" since the founding of Save the Dunes.
"The council has moved on," she said. "Younger people have taken over but they have the same enthusiasm for the region that we always had."
Herb Read agrees.
"It's amazing to me that 60 years later, this little grassroots organization put together by Dorothy Buell would still be alive and functioning," he said.
Learning from history
Barker said she is "in awe" of the living legends of the organization like Troy.
"Their perseverance is so inspiring," Barker said. "What is the source of that energy and passion? They're constantly renewing that optimism. You learn so much from them. I just wish we could spend hours recording them. We always learn from history and history repeats itself, so we need to draw on that knowledge."
Herb Read said he hopes the next generation has the same passion as the founders he now refers to as "us old-timers."
"What's critical to the future of Save the Dunes is that the fire in the belly is still there," he said. "We have to hope that it remains. We have a whole new generation of board members and we have to be sure they familiarize themselves with the history and not shy away from what can sometimes be a tough fight."
Save the Dunes has survived while many other local environmental organizations have folded. Barker said there has been pressure on Save the Dunes to be the region's voice on all things environmental, forcing the group to formally craft its vision for the future.
"We were asked to do everything under the sun," Barker said. "We realized and agreed that we're going to have to say no to some stuff."
The litmus test for causes now, she said, is simple: How does this directly impact the Dunes?
"We have tried so hard to remain nimble to face the challenges ahead of us," Barker said.
Barker said pollution, invasive species, helping the park retain its status as a national lakeshore and protecting it are among those challenges.
A Chicago park
"I think we have a long way to go to get people to realize we are the only national park in the Chicago region," Barker said.
Barker said the importance of the Chicago connection to the Dunes, which played a critical role in establishing the land as a National Park Service property, has come full circle.
"The resources we have in Chicago in The Field Museum, Chicago Wilderness, the universities, are really helping to elevate our game," Barker said. "I'd rather have as many people helping as possible. On some level, we're all one ecosystem."
"Essentially, it is a Chicago park," Troy said. "I'm hoping we can influence Rahm Emanuel to protect more of the lakeshore. The future, I believe, has to be on protecting the park and expanding it. I think it constantly needs protection."