For Gilchrest, It’s No Political Wilderness
Teaching Kids Ecology Is Truly in His Nature
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
KENNEDYVILLE, Md. — Wayne Gilchrest had come to the homeless shelter with high ambitions.
The former congressman was to take the shelter’s kids out the next day for hiking and canoeing in a nature preserve. But first, he wanted to give them a refresher on some earlier lessons. He’d keep it simple: “Trees, rocks, bees,” he thought aloud on the way to the shelter.
He pulled up to the cluster of motel-like buildings on the upper Eastern Shore, across the Sassafras River from Gilchrest’s home and the preserve. He lifted from his truck a bucket whose contents included a robin’s nest and a big knobby rock , plus a map of his former district, to show the kids where they’d be going.
The college student overseeing the shelter’s kids, Sam Eklund, was with 10 of them at a jungle gym beside a cornfield. A kid with a blond buzz cut and a blaring radio stared at Gilchrest. Nearby, laundry flapped on a line.
Eklund made her way over. Gilchrest explained what he hoped to accomplish with his visit.
“And I might give the definition of estuary,” he said.
He said quickly, “I might be doing too much.”
But the truth was, Gilchrest was thinking big. After 18 years representing Maryland’s Eastern Shore and parts of its western as an exceedingly independent-minded Republican in a conservative district, Gilchrest was expelled from Congress by a primary challenger last year. Now the 63-year-old has settled on a plan for his post-political life: He wants to create a program under which all children in Kent and Cecil counties would regularly visit the 1,000-acre county and state lands near where Turner’s Creek meets the Sassafras. In exploring the lush area filled wildlife and scattered with several 18th-century buildings and Native American traces, the children would received what Gilchrest likes to call a “PhD in environmental ethics” by the time they graduate from high school.
“These kids would have a deep frame of reference for the ecology and their place in the ecology,” he said, laying out the vision in his truck. “You’d have an understanding of your own niche and how it can be compatible with nature’s design.”
For years, Gilchrest had been taking out disadvantaged or troubled kids who, teachers thought, could benefit from time outdoors. To scale it up, he figures, he needs two state workers and an annual budget of a hundred or two hundred grand. He’s getting encouraging responses from state and federal officials.
Michael Harvey, president of the Kent County Board of Education, said the upper Shore was fortunate that Gilchrest — who won students’ affection as a teacher with tales of his peripatetic young adulthood — was returning to help its kids.
“Wayne takes us back to an earlier idea of the citizen legislator,” said Harvey, a business professor at Washington College. “In one way or another, he always cared about the environment, and for passing things on to the young . . . and now with a bit of help from others, he can establish a legacy.”
For trial runs, Gilchrest is taking out groups like the children from Meeting Ground shelter, whose director he’s known for years.
Eklund called the kids over. Gilchrest unfurled the map and traced the route they would take. He held up the knobby rock and asked what “conglomerate” meant. Destiny Stone, 9, mumbled something. Gilchrest pointed. “Say that again!” “It’s a whole bunch of rocks combined together,” she said.
Gilchrest beamed. At times like these, it was easy to forget what he’d left behind.
In recent weeks, his former colleagues had been facing down town hall crowds. Someone had hung a cardboard effigy of the man who’d succeeded him. And the party whose tag he had carried through 10 elections had, if anything, moved even further from what he’d known it to be when he started out.
In that regard, his retreat to the Shore had nationwide echoes. He was one of a legion of moderate Republicans who fell away from the party as it narrowed around a more orthodox, pugnacious and Southern strain of conservatism. “I can remember sitting and having dinner with the other Republicans,” he said while driving to the shelter, “and thinking, if I was on the outside, I would not be having dinner with these guys.”
After the lesson, Gilchrest carried the bucket back to his truck. The excursion had been shorter than he’d hoped, but he decided it was worth it.
“Brains work in extraordinary ways,” he said. “Now they have in their brains: bees, trees and rocks.”
Walking a Fine Line
What becomes of the ex-congressman after two decades on the job?
Some go back to the old line of work, a law firm or family business. But what would that be in Gilchrest’s case? His r?sum? was a mishmash.
After graduating from high school in New Jersey, he enlisted in the Marines and returned from Vietnam a decorated hero. He bounced around, slaughtering chickens and leading a Boy Scout troop for delinquents before getting a bachelor’s degree at Delaware State. After teaching in Vermont, he moved to the Eastern Shore, where his wife was from, and found work teaching social studies at Kent County High School. Next came a stint in Idaho with the Forest Service before returning to the Shore.
Though he’d always been a social liberal and environmentalist, Gilchrest had once seen things to like in the Republicans — he admired Gerald Ford for getting out of Vietnam and Ronald Reagan for pulling out of Beirut. And when he ran for Congress in 1988, it was easier to challenge the incumbent, a conservative Democrat, as a Republican. He was a long shot, but the incumbent became embroiled in scandals, and Gilchrest won on his second try.
For 18 years he walked a fine line. He voted for gun control and with the environmentalists, but stuck with the party on just enough big votes: to impeach Bill Clinton, for the 2001 tax cuts and for the 2002 Iraq War resolution.
But in 2007, he was one of only two House Republicans to vote for the Iraq supplemental funding bill that included timetables for withdrawal. And in his primary the next year, he lost to a conservative state senator who in turn lost to a moderate Democrat in November.
Now he’s free to express himself. When he started in Congress, Republicans “weren’t yet what they turned out to be,” he said. “It was the last of the WASPy New Englanders, with their sense of public service. . . . But then all of a sudden, they just got taken over. I hate to say this, but ignorance, arrogance and dogma are pervasive in the world, and they certainly are pervasive in the Republican Party.”
A few months ago, he and his wife took into their care his grandnieces, ages 9 and 14. A parent again after raising two sons and a daughter, Gilchrest needed work that would keep him closer to home.
He loved teaching and the outdoors. While in Congress, he got out in his canoe once a week for peace of mind. “You can’t have a society if its people are not happy and confident and if they have no connection to nature,” he said.
As he said this, he was walking down to a beach on the Sassafras to make sure the terrain was safe for the children. Two bald eagles flew overhead as he launched into his pedagogic pitch. “There’s everything in ecology. There’s math in ecology. There’s history in ecology.” He came upon a junk pile against a tree. “And there’s tires in ecology.”
It was 15 minutes past the appointed time, and there was no sign of the kids. Gilchrest fidgeted with his supplies at the pavilion above the Turner’s Creek dock.
Finally, a rumble came down the road and two vans rolled in. Out spilled 19 kids, ages 2 to 14, white and African American, one with an arm cast, another limping with a still-healing broken leg. The walk to the beach was short but still an adventure. Some kids dashed ahead. Some lay down to see if the vultures in a tree above would swoop down at them. And despite Gilchrest’s cautions about the bluffs, a 5-year-old boy briefly swerved toward the edge.
Down on the beach, Gilchrest pointed out the bands of sedimentation in the bluffs, and Dartanion Stone, 11, went off hunting for conglomerates.
But the water captured the most attention. Before their chaperones had even tried to lay down any rules, most of the kids had tumbled in, shoes and all. Then, some drama: Off on the far side of the Chesapeake was the tight whirl of a waterspout extending down from dark clouds. The children lingered, marveling, despite the adults’ urgings to get away. Finally, the crew was back on the trail, squishing along in sopping shoes.
If Gilchrest was disappointed by the beach visit, he didn’t say: “We outdid the tornado, the scratches, the bugs and the cliffs,” he said as he oversaw the uphill clamber.
The chaperones weren’t so sure. “Why did I agree to do this?” said Eklund, lugging one of the kids on her back. Another chaperone chided Gilchrest . “Next time,” she said, “bring towels and toilet paper.”
After lunch , the oldest children went to the creek’s edge to check out the county’s anti-erosion efforts.
Tehya Randall, 11, perched on a rock, blithely asked: “How was that cliff made?”
Gilchrest brightened. “Oh, come here!” he said, and the kids gathered around. With a finger, he drew lines in the wet sand. “Here’s a river, and here’s a river. This is the Susquehanna. Twenty thousand years ago, this was glaciers. Then the ice started to melt, and these two rivers were filled with that melt water. . . . The water rushed down so fast that it piled up dirt and rocks; it made a big trench and brought with it the dirt and sand and rocks, and made those cliffs.”
Later, the eldest eight kids climbed into his four canoes. As they reached some water lilies, Gilchrest encouraged them to paddle in enough to pluck a blossom each. Surprised that this larceny had been approved, they inched in eagerly among the green pads.
At the trip’s end, Gilchrest was dragging the canoes to land when a couple of SUVs pulled up and three well-dressed women piled out to board a pleasure boat.
They greeted their former congressman and then appeared puzzled as they scanned his soaked trousers and glanced at the dripping near-teens around him.
“You got a bit wet,” one of the women said.