Jack Russell spent a lifetime organizing people and heeding the call of public service. He didn’t stop when he returned 10 years ago to live year round in the home where he was raised on Mount Desert Island.
Russell, 72, is co-chair of the Acadia Centennial Task Force, which is organizing the celebration of Acadia National Park’s 100th anniversary this year.
A son of geneticists recognized for their work around the world, Russell came back to Maine with his wife, Sandy Wilcox, and moved into a home his family has owned since 1937 at the north end of Echo Lake.
Though he worked in government and private nonprofits in Michigan much of his life, Russell said his longing for Acadia was powerful and he returned virtually every summer for a vacation.
“Whatever zip code I lived in, I was very clear where my home was and I was clear I would be coming back,” he said.
Organizer Jack Russell brings activism to Acadia Centennial planning
While his parents were noted for their genetic research, Russell’s passion was in politics, grassroots activism and later economic development in rust belt Michigan.
After getting his bachelor’s degree from Marlboro College in Brattleboro, Vt. and his master’s from Brown University, he traveled 30,000 miles in a Volkswagen Bus in 1970-71 as an organizer with the New University Conference, a group of mostly students and faculty that led protests and events in support of causes such as ending the war in Vietnam and racial equality.
He later moved to Detroit, a city ready for social progress during an era of national upheaval.
He was a community organizer for six years in post-riot Detroit, working to improve neighborhoods when poverty, crime and race sharply divided the city and global economic trends were taking auto jobs and leaving behind massive empty factories.
He later became a staffer for Detroit City Councilor Ken Cockrel Sr., the Michigan State Senate and then for Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard.
Russell said his time in Detroit taught him to speak to all kinds of people and groups with different interests. “You had to learn to be effective,” he said.
Russell said he is still seeking to inspire people as co-chair of the centennial task force the past three years with Cookie Horner. Both are also longtime board members of the Friends of Acadia, the nonprofit organization that has donated about $20 million for programs and projects at the park and surrounding communities.
Russell said he is happy and proud to be co-chairing the centennial celebration, which includes a year-long calendar of events. He said the work on the task force is a full-time job, but he and Horner were aware from the start that it would take a big commitment.
“The park is central in our lives and in our community,” he said. “If we get significant support, it is worth doing.”
Lessons learned as a boy growing up on Mount Desert Island
Russell’s deep connections with the park began as a young boy when his mother gave him free range to hike anywhere he wished. He said he remembers hiking to the peak of Sargent Mountain, the park’s second highest peak, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean and believing there were mountains all the way to Florida.
Russell said he was “a lab brat” because of his parents, William L. Russell and Elizabeth S. Russell, had both been scientists at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor.
His parents divorced and the father spent most of his career at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where his trials on mice led to standards for the effects of radiation on humans. His mother did her genetic work at Jackson and was known for discoveries in pigmentation, blood-forming cells, and germ cells.
Both parents were so accomplished that they were elected members of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors in science.
The great fire of 1947 devastated the park and virtually destroyed the lab. The fire killed 90,000 mice, a research colony developed over 30 years, Russell said.
His mother coordinated the retrieval of Jackson Laboratory mice from scientists around the world so that the lost inbred strains could be reestablished, according to her obituary online at the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicines.
As a single mother, she was also raising four small children, Russell said.
Russell was 4 years old when the fire struck and his family was among the first group of people to evacuate from Mount Desert Island.
The Russell family slept two nights in the municipal building in Ellsworth and then stayed with a family on a farm in Ellsworth for a week. He said it was astonishing how people pulled together and helped each other out in the wake of the fire.
“You learn what community means pretty quickly,” he said. Maybe that is partly the reason that prompted Russell to work to improve communities during most of his life.
After years in city and state government in Michigan, he was also vice president of the Industrial Technology Institute in Ann Arbor and then founder of the Modernization Forum.
Now, his challenge, along with Horner, is to lead the effort to mark the centennial of the Maine National Park.
Russell said one key to involving people from throughout the region was establishing the “centennial partners.” Under the program, people define their bond to the park by helping to plan events, make donations or design and sell products connected to the celebration.
As a partner, Russell, among other volunteer tasks, is teaching an eight-week course on the history of the park and organizing a reprise of the 1916 celebration of the founding of the Sieur de Monts National Monument, a forerunner to the park, and dedication of a time capsule for organizers of the 2116 bicentennial.
Not long after he returned to Mount Desert Island, Russell buttonholed then Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne during an event in Bangor to support a boost in federal dollars for national parks. He told Kempthorne the money was needed to help preserve Acadia for his two step-granddaughters, Makenna and Madelyn Buist, ages 11 and 8 respectively.
During his formal remarks, Kempthorne later cited his conversation with Russell.
When Makenna and Madelyn visit Acadia during the summer, they can hear the loons on Echo Lake. Russell said the calls help remind him that all the organizing might be worth the effort.
One in a series of Acadia Centennial features. Acadia on My Mind is an official Acadia Centennial Partner.