Hundreds of people gathered at Happy Days Lodge in Peninsula Saturday to pay their respects to Darwin Kelsey, founding director of Countryside Conservancy.
A lone violinist played “Ave Maria” at the memorial for Kelsey, one of the few somber moments in what was really a celebration life.
“Darwin would always call me ‘dude.’ It wasn’t a California surfer kind of dude. I’m not the only one, but that was kind of his thing," said Phil Nabors, one of many people who was greeted as “dude” over the years by Kelsey, who died last week at age 76 following an illness.
Nabors – who founded Mustard Seed Market – was a longtime friend of Kelsey.
“He and I would always find ourselves at the most obscure conferences in alternative farming methods, generally, urban farming issues, local food issues [and] eventually we were the only old guys in the room.
"When I think of Darwin, I think of a few key words: visionary, intellectual giant, big heart. He had a vision for how the world might be that made it better.”
Kelsey grew up on a dairy farm in New York and later raised small livestock. His career also took him to Kentucky to run the National Museum of the Boy Scouts of America, and eventually to Northeast Ohio, where he founded the Countryside Conservancy in 1999. His widow, Chris, says this final phase of his career felt like he was coming home.
“I think this job was perfect for him. Frankly, he didn’t even see it as a job. It was not a job: it was his life’s work and his passion. And he was one of the most unassuming guys. All of the acclaim he got throughout his life, it never went to his head.”
Darwin Kelsey established the first farmers' markets in the country to be in a national park – a move that met with some controversy at its outset. From 1988 until 2009, John Debo was superintendent of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
“The initial response of many in the National Park Service was, ‘Well, we didn’t have vineyards in the Cuyahoga Valley.’ But actually, a little research showed that yes, almost every farm – in some measure – was actually growing grapes.”
That led to the opening of Sarah’s Vineyard, and many other farms in the parks in the years since. Debo says Kelsey’s success here showed that it was feasible to have living, working, environmentally responsible farms in a national park setting.
A national trend
Craig Kenkel, the current superintendent of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, agrees, and says Kelsey’s work changed the parks service’s thinking toward agriculture.
“Sustainable farming principles and practices can be done in national parks in a way that least harms the environment and then also creates a way to preserve the cultural landscape [and] the rural landscape pf national parks that have those historical places and properties. It’s also a way to educate park visitors about how to produce sustainable food [and] healthy food in a way that’s totally appropriate to our ecosystem.”
Kenkel says Kelsey – who had been director emeritus with the conservancy since September – was planning to turn his attention to urban farming in the future by showing visitors how to grow vegetables at home, regardless of whether they were in a house or an apartment.
Now, Kenkel agrees with many of Kelsey’s friends and colleagues that the Countryside Conservancy is on very solid footing, thanks to its founding director’s work.