Elizabeth Cushman Titus Putnam ’55 was able to keep her emotions in check eight years ago at the White House when President Barack Obama presented her with the nation’s second highest civilian award, the 2010 Presidential Citizens Medal.
But when the revered conservation pioneer learned that Vassar and the Hudson Valley chapter of the Student Conservation Association (SCA) had planted a tree in her honor at the Ecological Preserve, she failed to fight back her tears. “Yeah, I got a little leaky,” Putnam admitted following the brief ceremony Sept. 12 just outside the Priscilla Bullitt Collins Field Station on the Preserve.
Putnam’s senior thesis on the need to address the deterioration of the nation’s national parks led to the creation of the SCA. Since its founding in 1957, the organization has attracted more than 70,000 young people who help care for state and national parks and other public lands throughout the country.
Putnam made the trip from her home in Vermont to help SCA members and about 50 students, faculty and staff take part in the college’s annual Day of Service, held this year on the afternoon of Sept. 11 and the morning of Sept. 12. Volunteers planted more than 300 trees, removed invasive vines from parts of the forest and built boardwalks over some swampland to enhance the trail network.
The trees—oak, hickory, maple and dogwood, among others—were planted to replace several hundred ash trees that are expected to die over the next few years as a result of infestation from an insect called the emerald ash borer.
But Putnam wasn’t expecting to see a 12-foot-high swamp white oak tree sitting by itself in a hole in the ground just outside the Field Station. “I was called a chatterbox when I was a kid, but right now I’m speechless,” she said as about 30 SCA members clapped and cheered. “It fills my heart with joy; I feel so blessed.”
Ecological Preserve Manager Keri Van Camp, who helped plan the surprise, said Putnam had been serving as an inspiration for Vassar students for generations. “If Liz could take an idea she had for her thesis and turn it into something that has become this big, other students can see that their own dreams can come true,” Van Camp said.
Mirit Rutishauser ’19, an Environmental Studies major from New York City, witnessed the surprise ceremony along with other volunteers and SCA members. Rutishauser said she had come to love and appreciate the Ecological Preserve when she worked there last summer, “and I’m here today to give something back.”