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Eugenie Beal, 92; ‘mother of green space’ in Boston

Eugenie Beal was the first chair of Boston’s Conservation Commission.

1983 file

Eugenie Beal was the first chair of Boston’s Conservation Commission.

As the environmental movement began to coalesce in the late 1960s, Eugenie Beal was studying parks for the League of Women Voters when she and the organization decided Boston would benefit from having a Conservation Commission.

She took the idea to Mayor Kevin White and by 1970 Ms. Beal was chairing the commission as its first leader. “We have to nail down anything that hasn’t been developed,” she told the Globe four years later, “and there isn’t much left.”

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Working inside and outside of government, Ms. Beal spent more than four decades doing just that as one of the city’s most successful advocates for preserving open spaces. She was the first director of the city’s Environment Department, served for many years on the board of the Friends of the Public Garden, was a member of the Mayor’s Central Artery Completion Task Force, cofounded the nonprofit Boston Natural Areas Network, and helped launch the Emerald Necklace Conservancy.

“Genie Beal was the mother of green space in the City of Boston,” said Mayor Thomas M. Menino. “She was one of the kindest advocates for protecting green space and the natural beauty of our city. She was a true believer. Her only agenda was improving the open spaces in Boston.”

Ms. Beal, who in 2005 was an inaugural recipient of the Justine Mee Liff Spirit Award, presented by the Emerald Necklace Conservancy in honor of the late Boston Parks commissioner, died in her sleep Aug. 28 in the Springhouse retirement community in Jamaica Plain. She was 92 and had attended meetings until the end, visiting the mayor’s office just two weeks ago.

“I think people thought we were a bit crazy to think anything could be preserved at all,” she told the Globe in 1995, looking back at her beginnings in 1970 and her first quarter century as a public official and private advocate of setting aside open spaces.

Her success may have been due principally to persistence, but her presence also opened doors, wallets, and hearts as she went about her work. Conservatively dressed, she could be soft-spoken until she wanted to make a particular point. Then her voice took on a tone that, for friends, was as memorable as it was indescribable.

“She was extraordinarily patient, strategic. She was very savvy politically and extremely articulate. And most important, she was charming,” said Valerie Burns, president of the Boston Natural Areas Network. “Always polite, very proper, and very smart, she really tickled the hearts of a lot of politicians because she was so hard to say ‘no’ to.”

Menino agreed, saying “you couldn’t say no to her” because Ms. Beal was determined to ensure that Boston’s open spaces were as good or better than could be found elsewhere.

To be sure, Ms. Beal realized that cities brought different resources to bear on open space preservation. “Comparing the Rose Kennedy Greenway and its surroundings to New York City’s Central Park is as logical as comparing a mouse to an elephant,” she chided in a 2009 Globe letter to the editor. She cautioned officials to avoid using unlikely comparisons as they contemplated plans for a greenway that she praised as “an unpolished gem.”

As an advocate, Ms. Beal used various venues to argue her cause. She led public agencies and helped launch and nurture nonprofits. She served on boards, wrote Globe opinion pieces and letters to the editor, and penned essays for CommonWealth magazine.

“Whenever you wanted to talk about green space, you talked to Genie Beal,” Menino said.

Margaret Eugenie Moore, who preferred to be called Genie, was born in New York City, the older of two daughters. Her parents were Edwin Norton Moore and the former Margaret Foster Smith. Her sister, Katharine, died in 1983.

Ms. Beal grew up in New York’s Westchester County suburbs and accompanied her father, a trusts and estates lawyer, on business trips to Paris and Berlin in the 1920s and ’30s.

As a high school junior, she visited Radcliffe College and stayed at the Copley Hotel. After enrolling at Radcliffe, she and a date strolled through the grassy median of Commonwealth Avenue one day, a walk that made an impression.

“That gave her a vision of Boston as a special place with open green spaces, beautiful houses right in the downtown area, and a certain livability for all,” said her son, Christopher of New York City.

Because of her foreign travels, she was fluent in French and German by the time she arrived at Radcliffe, and she aspired to become a linguist. Instead, she left after two years to marry David Beal.

They had three children and moved as they followed his work to Tennessee, New York, and Massachusetts. Their marriage ended in divorce and he died in 1985.

In 1980, she married John Blackwell, with whom she founded the Boston Natural Areas Network. She formerly chaired the organization and was an emerita board member.

“In the beginning, conservation was thought to be something you did in the suburbs — people felt there was no real relevance to the cities,” Ms. Beal wrote in remarks she prepared for the organization’s 25th anniversary celebration. “I’m proud to be part of a dedicated group of people throughout the City of Boston and in various organizations who helped to change the climate of opinion.”

Along with her advocacy work, Ms. Beal returned to college, graduating from Boston University with a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees, her son said.

In 2005, Ms. Beal and developer Norman Leventhal were the first recipients of the Liff award. Her other honors included the Charles Eliot Award from the Trustees of Reservations and the LaGasse Medal from the American Society of Landscape Architects.

The green spaces she preserved were more important to her, however, and “she was enormously proud in her very quiet, lady-like way,” her son said.

Ms. Beal’s husband died in 2010. In addition to her son, she leaves two daughters, Hilary of Somerville and Margaret of Brookline; two stepsons, Thomas Blackwell of Ann Arbor, Mich., and William Blackwell of Waterloo, Belgium; two grandchildren; and two step-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Sept. 26 in the Arnold Arboretum’s Weld Hill Research Building in Jamaica Plain.

“We aspire to be a world-class city,” she wrote in a Globe letter to the editor in June 2011. “Let’s come together to figure out how to make our parks attain that standard.”

Although Ms. Beal was part of the city’s decision to consolidate six commissions into one Environmental Department, she also advocated creating individual nonprofits to focus on particular initiatives. And she was an early believer in public-private partnerships, Burns said, especially when they led to lasting preservation.

“Genie was always very focused on what change she could help make that would be permanent, that wasn’t just temporary for a few years,” Burns said.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard @ globe.com.

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