Chautauqua Conversations

For several years, Chautauqua County, the Institution, local civic and tourist development boards, and various lake conservation groups and coalitions have been struggling against the rising tide of weeds, pollution and the seemingly inexorable death march of Chautauqua Lake.

No couple in the county has waged the battle more fiercely — nor longer — than Doug and Jane Conroe. Doug, the Institution’s director of operations, is the current president and one of the early leaders of the Chautauqua Lake Association, which clears the lake of choking weeds. Jane is a leading public face of the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, which tries to keep harmful pollutants and weed nutrients from running off into the lake.

In the after-hours quiet of Doug’s cluttered corner office in the Colonnade, we spoke about their lives and conservation efforts, starting with witnessing one of the most shattering events of the last half of 20th-century American history.

Jane: We met at Kent State University. I was from Chardon, Ohio, in Geauga County, east of Cleveland. I was the elected president of my freshman dorm. Doug was involved in student government; he was a junior and president of the mens’ inter-hall council. We attended meetings of these organizations together. We wound up dating and were engaged by the time I was a junior. He was a graduate student in public administration by then, and had an internship in the office of student conduct affairs.

Doug: There had been trouble at Kent State in 1969 between the administration and the students. The cause was basically the Vietnam War, increasingly unpopular with a largely liberal student body at the university. There were indeed some outside activists who probably incited some of the trouble. Some outsiders were reportedly affiliated with the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society]. But in 1969 it had ended peacefully. With the job and positions I had held, I was able to play some role in that.

Jane: The next year, in early May 1970, the unimaginable happened. Resentment had grown over the Vietnam War, but the revelations of President Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodian border regions ignited a revolt.

That weekend before the shootings happened was actually kind of a pretty spring weekend. Kids were out. There was a famous picture of national guardsmen standing there, and this girl in what would have been 1970s wild-child garb stuck a flower in the muzzle of the his gun.

Doug: On a Sunday night, there had been some mattress fires set on campus. I was right there witnessing the fires. It was part of my job. The fire department came, and the students chopped up their hoses with axes. Rocks were thrown. The ROTC buildings were the targets, and the governor of Ohio sent in the National Guard. The guard had been staged outside town, and I felt some sense of relief when they came in. I thought this might, perhaps, prevent more trouble.

Jane: The students had been given warnings that gatherings of more than two or three people were illegal. There was a curfew. Streets were monitored basically by helicopter. There were tanks running up and down the streets. There were armed soldiers everywhere.

There was a hill on the campus at Kent State.  The architecture building sat on top of that hill, and at its base was what we called the “gathering place.” Defying the orders of the university administration, students announced they would meet at noon on Monday at the gathering place. I know the history books say the cause of everything that week was the war, and students did resent the war. But I still believe the real reason for the gathering was a protest against the presence of the troops on campus.

Anyhow, the students did meet at the gathering place. The National Guard moved in and formed a perimeter around the students, essentially pinning them against the base of the hill.

The soldiers pressed in on the students, forcing them up and partially over the hill. Somehow, some of the guardsmen outflanked the students, winding up behind them. Over the hill was a parking lot. I was coming back from class, walking through that parking lot. I didn’t see the shooting, because I passed the parking lot a few minutes earlier. Chaos ensued. I was tear gassed, and was running back to the dorm to get that burning tear gas out of my eyes. Four students were killed by American National Guardsmen that day, and others were seriously wounded.

Doug: The campus was shut down. Students were told to get out, to go home, get their parents to pick them up. I lived off-campus and was able to get Jane back home to her family. Since this happened near the end of the semester, most students ended up sending in papers, or took open-book exams off campus.

Jane: I took the hardest organic chemistry test of my life that spring. It was an open-book exam. But you definitely had to read and understand the textbook.

The next year, I returned to Kent as a junior; Doug was at nearby Hiram College, where he was director of housing. We got married after my junior year, and I commuted back to Kent to finish my degree. We were the dorm parents for the mens’ quad at Hiram. One of my responsibilities was to faithfully weed out the marijuana plants nestled in amongst the holly by my front door. After graduation, I taught high school science in Aurora, Ohio. We started our family. Three kids were born. Before we knew it, Doug had been at Hiram for 10 years and it wasn’t going to get any better there. We started looking around.

Doug is from Jamestown originally. A family friend called one day who was the treasurer of the Chautauqua Lake Association. He said the CLA was looking to hire an executive director. This was in 1980.

Doug: We had bought a cottage in Maple Springs, across Chautauqua Lake from the Institution in 1978. It was next to my parents’ place, on the lake.

Jane: We didn’t own anything, and thought maybe we should. I remember looking at this cottage, all boarded up in February. There was no electricity. There were dirty dishes in the sink. But we bought it. When we took the CLA job that’s where we lived. We plumbed a heating system, put in storm windows and we made it through the winter. I stayed home with the kids, and he worked at the CLA.

Doug: My father ran a lumber business and after a while he asked me to take it over. The CLA job was not going to provide the income I needed to support the family, so I agreed. But as we started getting the business invigorated, the big box stores came in and the economy was sliding. This was 1983.

Jane: Doug was hired at Chautauqua in October 1984 as assistant to the vice president of operations, who was Tom Smith. Doug’s office was in this suite toward the back of the building. That was 30 years ago.

I took a teaching job as our youngest child was in first grade. I taught at Chautauqua High School, which was then just across the road from the Institution. I taught all sorts of earth and natural sciences. Quite the potpourri of sciences. After five years, there was a lot of talk about consolidation in schools — which came to pass and Chautauqua High School was closed and merged with another school. There was a vacancy at Maple Grove School, where my kids were enrolled. I moved there. The night we told our kids I was going to teach at their school was a scary night for them. I was at that school for 24 years, until 2008. At around that time, Doug took over for Charlie Heinz as head of the operations department.

Doug: I guess I got the lake conservation passion first. My time at the CLA had certainly piqued my interest, and I had been on this lake for every summer of my life. The CLA job opened some doors for membership on county committees, and things grew from there. I started out teaching Jane on lake issues, and now more recently she is the one teaching me some things. I taught her about water issues generally and now with her science background she is showing me how and why it all fits together.

Jane: Through the years, Chautauqua Lake became such a vital part of our lives. We were boating, canoeing, sailing, skating in the winter, kayaking eventually. Our first sailboat was called “Swindle,” because he bought it without telling me beforehand. And I wound up the one who sailed it. It was the smallest scow they make.

I fell in love with this lake. It just sucks you in somehow, doesn’t it? So there was an emotional attachment to match the scientific realization of the peril the lake faces. Now for the past four years I have been an apostle for the lake, supported by a grant from the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy. I was on their board of directors for a while. The lake is part of me. I call her by the pronoun “she.”

Doug: I was appointed by Gov. Mario Cuomo to the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, an interstate compact of eight states and the federal government. Three successors including his son, have reappointed me. I have served all the officer roles in ORSANCO and am currently the vice chairman with the expectation that I will become chairman next July. I guess I am a believer and participant in organizations, and trust in their potential for good.

At ORSANCO, I am at the table with the chief environmental officers of eight states and the federal EPA regional directors. I have opportunities for wider perspectives. I was also a charter member of the Chautauqua County Environmental Management Council. I am the current chairman of the council.

Jane: Those trying days at Kent may have influenced our faith in organizations. We held leadership positions in student groups and felt we did some good things.

Doug: On the future of Chautauqua Lake, we are definitely seeing a resurgence of public interest. We are seeing initiative and energy from a lot of different sectors. There is hope in that. More people do seem to be finally getting it. The majority still does not. But if you understand natural evolution, you have to be guarded about the future. We’re not going to return the lake to the pristine clarity of 200 years ago.

The question is: Can we prevent harmful algal blooms? There is reason for optimism there. There will be blooms, but if we can avoid the scum, the intensity and the toxicity of the blooms, then people can still enjoy the lake.

Jane: Towns and municipalities and the state can be keys to helping the lake, through zoning ordinances, highway practices, and things like that. Individuals can make small changes, but they count too. That’s where I’ve been directing my enthusiasm. There’s so much worthwhile work to do.