A stay-at-home mother with no formal environmental education, Rita Barron was an unlikely candidate to spearhead the early stages of transformation in the 1970s and ’80s of the Charles River’s infamous dirty water to a clean urban waterway.
Yet as executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, she coined the nickname “The People’s River” and helped make the community care about it again.
“We like to think about the changes in public attitudes we can bring about,” she told the Globe in May 1981 during a canoe excursion the group arranged with US Senator Paul Tsongas. “We have helped people to see what they have in their backyards. Our main goal is to get people to love the river and to care about it. Once you do that, you’ve got a gem, and who could turn down a gem?”
For Mrs. Barron, the answer was few. Her work at the helm of the organization earned her invitations to the White House during the Carter administration and recognition from the United Nations, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Mrs. Barron, who led the organization from 1973 until her retirement in 1988, died Aug. 30 in her Irving, Texas, home of complications of Alzheimer’s disease. She was 86 and had lived in Newton for nearly 50 years before moving to Texas in 2006.
‘We have helped people to see what they have in their backyards. Our main goal is to get people to love the river and to care about it.’
“She was truly iconic,” said Bob Zimmerman, the watershed association’s current executive director.
Mrs. Barron “was practical, she made sense, and she was able to get people to follow her,” Zimmerman said. “By the time I took over in 1990, there was a sense in the Greater Boston area that the Charles could be rescued.”
She grew up in Malden and graduated from Girls Catholic High School in 1943. For several years, she studied piano and voice, performing in Boston as a lyric soprano while working for National Radio Co. and then for Arthur D. Little.
In 1952, she moved to an apartment in The River House in Boston, where she met Leo Barron, an advertising production executive. They had the same last name, and so found their mailboxes next to each other and their apartments directly across the hall from one another, said their daughter, Heidi of Silver Spring, Md. The Barrons married in 1955 and moved to Newton in 1958.
The couple had two children, and Mrs. Barron “would say, ‘A great stay-at-home mom makes everything,’ ” Heidi said. “We never ate anything that wasn’t homemade, we never wore anything that wasn’t homemade.”
Once her children started school, Mrs. Barron found herself with extra time and a desire to become involved in the community. She chose the League of Women Voters in Newton, and when presented with a choice of committees to join, picked the water resources committee.
“It wasn’t a lifelong interest or anything,” her daughter said. “She just decided it appealed to her. She taught herself how to be involved with it.”
As a self-proclaimed “seat-of-the-pants environmentalist,” Mrs. Barron forged a reputation for knowing about water quality and how to communicate that information to others, her daughter said. Mrs. Barron became active on the executive board of the watershed association not long after it was formed in 1965 by a group of people concerned that the river was falling victim to abuse and neglect.
At the time, the Charles was a dumping ground for industrial waste, including sugar and soap. Raw sewage ran in colors because of the dye pumped in by the nearby mills, and islands of dead fish floated on the water’s surface, according to historical materials.
Mrs. Barron became a champion for the river’s rebirth. She authored and addressed copies of the organization’s newsletter, The Streamer, from her dining room table, putting to use her wit and, when necessary, sharp pen, to raise awareness.
In 1972, the federal Clean Water Act was enacted. The following year, Mrs. Barron became the watershed association’s second executive director.
With a support staff of only two, she went on tour to build support. As a volunteer, she had taken a traveling slideshow of the river to area elementary schools. As executive director, she went to Beacon Hill and made her way from office to office, introducing herself to legislators. That legwork often paid off on return trips to seek support for legislation that protected and improved the river and its watershed, according to the association’s publications.
In one State House trip, she promoted the river’s Natural Valley Storage Area, more than 8,000 acres of wetlands in the upper and middle watershed.
Mrs. Barron showed off what she called her “swamp kit” and would place two small vials of water on a legislator’s desk. She dropped a stone into one, causing water to lap over the edges and onto the desk, which sent the legislator scrambling to keep papers from getting wet, her daughter recalled. In the other vial, Mrs. Barron placed a small sponge, a simple illustration of the importance of wetlands to the riverway.
The association’s efforts to preserve the Natural Valley Storage Area led the Army Corps of Engineers to acquire and protect the 8,000 acres. The agreement, Zimmerman said, was reached after Mrs. Barron took an Army Corps official on a canoe trip along the banks of the upper Charles. Afterward, he said, Mrs. Barron and the Army Corps became partners and went to testify before Congress.
Out of the group’s work with the Army Corps came plans for the new Charles River Dam, the dedication of which Mrs. Barron chaired in 1978.
Along with her work with the
watershed association, Mrs. Barron was an enthusiastic gardener who turned the front yards of her Newton and Irving homes into flower beds. She was also a member of a by-
invitation-only reading club that met weekly for paper presentations from its members.
In addition to her daughter and husband, Mrs. Barron leaves a son, Leland, of Irving.
At her request, no services are planned.
Much of her advocacy focused on promoting the Charles as a usable recreation resource. She hosted the first river swim at Forest Grove Park in Waltham in 1979, and the inaugural Run of the Charles Canoe and Kayak Race in 1982.
“It was the best way for the public to know that all of the tax money they’ve been spending on cleaning up the river is being used,” she said of the annual events in a 1986 interview. “This is an informal invitation to show that the river is ready for swimming. We’ve gone in, and our skin hasn’t fallen off or turned purple.”