Lee Botts grew up in Oklahoma and Kansas amid the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, so the sight of Lake Michigan when she arrived in Chicago in 1949 made quiet an impression on her.

She spent much of the rest of her life working to protect and restore the Great Lakes. The pioneering environmentalist died Saturday at the age of 91, her family said.

Botts loved the lushness and richness of the Indiana Dunes and always had an interest, especially in the plants, her daughter Elizabeth Botts said. 

"She had enormous energy," Elizabeth Botts said. "She was always looking ahead. She was always forging ahead. She was always seeing opportunities and things to change."

Botts was the first woman in her extended family to attend college, which wasn't common for women in Oklahoma at the time, son Paul Botts said. 

"It was at her mother's insistence that she go," he said.

At Oklahoma A&M, now known as Oklahoma State University, Botts met her husband, Lambert "Bud" Botts. They married and moved to Chicago's Hyde Park, so he could pursue a master's degree at the University of Chicago.

She became the editor of the weekly Hyde Park Herald in the early 1960s, joined the Open Lands Project in Chicago in 1968 and served as the founding executive director of the Lake Michigan Federation — now known as Alliance for the Great Lakes — from 1971 to 1975. The family rented a home in Beverly Shores and often spent time in the Dunes.

Lee Botts was an environmentalist before the environmental movement had a name, Elizabeth Botts said.

"She was a great woman, and the world is better for her," she said.

Botts helped organize the first Earth Day celebration in Chicago; the nonprofit she founded persuaded Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley to support efforts to become the first Great Lakes city to ban phosphates in laundry detergents; she led U.S. advocacy efforts for the first binational Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972; helped push for the Clean Water Act of 1972; and played a key role in urging Congress to ban PCBs under the 1974 Toxic Chemicals Control Act.

"She was part of a generation and a group that were creating new things," Paul Botts said. "She'd be the first to say she was improvising."

Lee Botts not only had her own career, she was a leader in her field, he said. 

After a short time the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Region 5 office in Chicago, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to lead the Great Lakes Basin Commission in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Lee Botts, who had divorced two years earlier, moved with several of her four children to Michigan until President Ronald Reagan eliminated the commission.

Botts held a research faculty appointment at Northwest University in Evanston, Illinois, from 1981 to 1985, when she joined the senior staff of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. There, she created the city's first Department of Environment.

After moving to Gary's Miller section in 1988, Botts brought two longtime ideas to fruition. 

She founded the Indiana Dunes Environmental Learning Center, a nonprofit that offers environmental education programs and overnight nature camps for students and teachers. Nearly 10,000 students now visit the center each year.

In recent years, Botts worked on the documentary "Shifting Sands: On the Path to Sustainability" with director Patricia Wisniewski.

For decades, Botts had talked to her children over dinner about her idea for a documentary file about the history of the Indiana Dunes. Though she could no longer drive, Botts wrote the script for the film, raised money and conducted and scheduled interviews.

"We had conversations like, 'This is crazy. We've got to talk mom out of this. This is insane,'" Paul Botts said.

In hindsight, Lee Botts' children all think the process of making the film helped to extend their mother's life.

Lee Botts was involved in the fight to create Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in the 1960s, and she believed her film helped propel recent efforts to designate the area as the country's 61st national park.

She was pleased to learn earlier this year that the park had finally become a reality, Elizabeth Botts said.

Botts lived in Miller until 2016, when she moved to an assisted living facility in Oak Park. She died of complications of dementia.

"She made her wishes clear," Paul Botts said. "She wanted to go naturally and peacefully when it was time. Which was the case."

Get local news delivered to your inbox!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.