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Parallel Footsteps

Walter Boynton couldn’t help but pass on the environmental gene to daughters Jessica and Sarah

Walter Boynton has invested his life in the environment. World famous for his research into urbanizing watersheds, the plain-spoken professor is a public employee, laboring on salary at Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons.
    “He was understanding, always encouraging my sister and me to do different things,” recalls daughter Sarah. “Showing us and telling us about the Bay and rivers. He kept us involved and gave us every opportunity to explore. But he never said, I think you should do this.”
    In the end, he couldn’t keep them from following in his footsteps.
    Jessica now works in South Carolina, “flying around leaning out the door of a helicopter to photograph oyster beds.” That kind of biology, says her father, “would be kind of fun.”
    Which has not necessarily been the case with his own work, first tracking down the sources of Chesapeake pollution, then convincing politicians and citizens to take action. “A lot of hard work and often discouraging,” he calls it. “But only a few times have I doubted it was worthwhile.”
    So for their children, Boynton and wife Mary Ellen — naturalist, retired physical therapist and Chespax teacher — vowed to be “pleased with whatever made them healthy and happy.”
    Sarah turned her sights abroad, traveling to France and taking her degree in its language. “I really like French,” she says, “and I wanted to do something different” … from her father, mother, sister and the life she knew.
    “But the environmental genes just kicked in,” she says. Now it’s her voice you’ll hear when you call the South Riverkeeper, where the youngest Boynton works as office administrator and event coordinator.
    Her father’s lifelong lesson has been twofold: You’ve not only got to have respect for the river, the Bays, the environment in general — you’ve also got to make people care.
    “He has a really good way of communicating the importance of saving the Bay and what needs to done,” she says.
    So here Sarah is at 27, “answering questions about what we do as South Riverkeeper, a lot of community outreach programs: communicating to people who might not get it and might not understand.
    “Cleaning up a bog at Edgewater Elementary or cleaning up on Church Creek on Forest Drive — on April 2, we picked up 1.3 tons of trash in 83 bags. Projects like that get people out and get them aware that this waterway goes into that one, goes into the Bay we’ve got to protect. Getting awareness out there is a major part of what we do.”
    Like father, like daughter.