Earth Day: Remembering the first celebration – Reading Eagle

Posted: April 23, 2020 at 11:49 am

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On the first Earth Day in 1970 Bill Litvin was a senior at Pottstown High School.

He doesn't remember a lot, but he never forgot choosing to walk across town to school. It was a small act in what would become a lifetime of thinking globally and acting locally.

"It was uphill to and from," he recalled. "There was no snow, that was April. It was good long walk, probably a mile and a half. I lived in the east end and the high school was on the north end."

Litvin is now a retired Giorgio Mushrooms sales executive. He's lived in Reading since 1987 and has led Berks County's Earth Day celebration since 1989 when it became an annual event. He said it grew out of the Berks Recycling Coalition.

"We saw Earth Day as a chance to educate people about environmental issues," Litvin said.

He's guided the event over years when it struggled to find a home and supporters for the jubilant celebration now held in City Park that focuses on education with family friendly activities.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic the event, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, has been rescheduled for Sept. 27.

Our annual celebration of the Earth has its roots in what author Adam Rome called an extraordinary teach-in on April 22, 1970.

"The teach-ins collectively involved more people than the biggest civil rights and antiwar demonstrations of the 1960s," Rome wrote in the 2013 book, "The Genius of Earth Day: How a Teach-in Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation."

The first Earth Day received extensive news coverage as kindergartners to college students tackled cleanup projects and dramatic awareness campaigns.

"In the library of Tyson-Shoener Elementary School, a sign was suspended over a single red tulip: 'Look, you may never see one again. This is a flower,' wrote Ray Koehler on page one of the Reading Times on April 23, 1970.

He wrote that a Wyomissing Junior High School teacher said: "The kids are really steamed up about this. They've read in 30 years it could be all over and they are upset they'll only be in their 40s."

In downtown Reading, Koehler wrote, Students for Clean Air from Penn State Berks place flyers under the windshield wipers of cars: "Did you know the greatest air pollutant is carbon monoxide from YOUR car? You are hereby fined 10 years of life gasping for breath for involuntary manslaughter. Do your share to clean the air."

Sixth-graders at Thomas H. Ford Elementary School wore rubber masks to class.

Students fished television sets out of Furnace Creek and picked up litter around Antietam Lake.

"Practically every Reading and Berks elementary and high school had ground crews in action, but the Muhlenberg Junior High School Student Council went a step further," Koehler wrote. "It sent a letter to the superintendent of buildings and grounds requesting that workers refrain from using hard or long-lasting pesticides when spraying school shrubbery and lawns."

Students at then-Alvernia College planted a silver birch tree at noon.

Some Holy Name High School students, Koehler wrote, stood at Fifth and Penn streets seeking signatures for a petitions for anti-pollution legislation.

Koehler wrote that some students felt legislators were apathetic to their concerns.

"There was also the feeling that Earth Day 1970 would be a 'one shot and done' venture and that adults would not listen to the voices of teenagers," Koehler wrote.

But in his story, principals at Gov. Mifflin and Muhlenberg high schools expressed their desires to continue environmental education.

In Conrad Weiser, Koehler wrote, the school board had approved a one-year program to integrate environmental conservation into fifth and sixth grades.

Harry Serio, a Fleetwood resident and longtime United Church of Christ pastor in Berks County, was 29 on the first Earth Day.

Serio, a pastor in Martins Creek in Lehigh County, was involved in the civil rights and anti-war movement. As a member of Friends of the Earth, he helped organize college students at Muhlenberg College, Lehigh University, Lafayette College and Moravian College.

"There was a lot of enthusiasm back in that first Earth Day and the years following," Serio said. "Students would mobilize on campus and protest. We staged a lot of what we called teach-ins where we had groups come together to try to explain how critical the environmental crisis was."

Serio said the environmental movement had many different organizations in the 1970s, all based around different issues: nuclear proliferation, pollution, pesticides in food, supersonic transport and population explosion.

Shortly after Earth Day in 1970, Serio found himself in Womelsdorf.

"In Womelsdorf we started a movement made up of Conrad Weiser faculty called the Town and Country Coalition for Environmental Protection," Serio said. "We were concerned that so much farmland was being used up for development and highways."

Unlike the antiwar movement, which polarized people, Serio said, environmental issues didn't have many enemies except maybe those who were doing the polluting.

Serio said on some of those early issues advocates turned out to be alarmists regarding population explosion, supersonic transport and microwaves.

Oley-based John Hoskyn-Abrahall was a young filmmaker on the first Earth Day.

Hoskyn-Abrahall and his wife, Winnie Scherrer, own Bullfrog Films, which grew into a documentary maker and distributor.

"Earth Dayon Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park was actually part of Philadelphias Earth Week," Scherrer said. "There were events all over the city, and a wide range of celebrities came in including politicians (U.S. Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine and Mayor John Lindsay of New York), scholars and public intellectuals (Paul Ehrlich, Alan Watts, George Wald), well-known radicals (Jerry Rubin, Wavy Gravy), poets and writers (Allen Ginsberg, Ed Sanders, Terry Southern), musical acts (the Broadway cast of 'Hair', Redbone)."

She said everyone was fired up and there were heated political discussions at the events.

"John and filmmaking partners filmed all of them along with various local acts, community groups, gangs and others," Scherrer said. "We knew Earth Day was a huge marker in the evolution of the counterculture from obscurity to center stage. "

That film became "Circuit Earth," still available through the company or in separate clips on YouTube.

Hoskyn-Abrahalland his partners filmed in 16 mm, a revolutionary format that put filmmaking equipment into the hands and budgets of young people.

Bullfrog's means of delivering educational documentaries has changed from 16mm film to video (3/4 to Betamax and VHS) to DVDs.

"Now we are streaming digital files through our educational streaming partner Docuseek, through our community screening website, and through our consumer streaming site called," she said.

Larry Lloyd, senior ecologist at Berks Nature, said he participated in Berks' first Earth Day at City Park to follow the mantra that still resonates through the movement, Think globally, act locally.

"First, for the many people who work on environmental matters, environmental education, and land and water protection and management, Earth Day is every day of every year," Lloyd said. "The commitment to a healthy environment that sustains all life on earth requires daily thoughtful actions and is a responsibility across generations.

"Environmental awareness is a lifestyle that reflects stewardship of the planet's natural resources."

Lloyd said Earth Day emerged from the industrial legacy of World War II and the Korean War.

"The use of war technology to control the environment led to widespread pollution in the U.S. environment in the 1960s best captured in the book, 'Silent Spring,' " Lloyd said. "Many dump sites would later be called Superfund sites."

From the Vietnam War, a young-adult movement emerged.

Lloyd said young people called for a green revolution and a cultural revolution to "displace the emptiness of the American dream and its 'happy days are here again,' which was contrary to the reality of pollution, environmental degradation, rapid suburban development and urban decay. Environmental awareness, the emergence of ecology, and hope for a healthier future were the cornerstones which led to Earth Day."

The momentum led to political activity that resulted in legislation across the nation in the 1970s to protect clean streams and endangered species.

Scherrer said the first Earth Day directly impacted legislation.

"The first Earth Day was a combination of fired-up passion, laid-back affect and a confidence we could fix the problems," Scherrer said. "That year the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and the EPA all came into being. Then the Endangered Species Act in 1973. It looked like the U.S. was going to be a leader, with law on our side."

Serio thinks Earth Day did make a difference.

"Because what happened was year after year people continued to be concerned about the environment," Serio said. "Now the issues have changed. What was important 50 years ago is not as important today. We have new issues. Global warming is certainly a big one. Our use of plastics the oceans are suffering and the sea animals are dying because of that. Farmland preservation is still important as well."

Serio credits the media for some of the impact.

"Just like today with the coronavirus," Serio said. "It was the same with the environmental movement. There wasn't a day that went by that you didn't see a story about environmental degradation."

Lloyd said the mantra of thinking globally and acting locally persists.

"There are many positive actions being done in Berks County," he said. "And there are many environmentally educated citizens, and there are abundant natural resources that can be restored.

"But greater participation is needed and the recognition that it will take everyone making the commitment to steward our environment if Berks County and the planet are to be regenerated and sustainable for future generations."

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Earth Day: Remembering the first celebration - Reading Eagle

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April 23rd, 2020 at 11:49 am

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