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For 50 years, Howard Wilkinson has been covering the campaigns, personalities, scandals, and business of politics on a local, state and national level. He's interviewed mayors, council members, county commissioners, governors, senators, and representatives. With so many years covering so many politicians, there must be stories to tell, right?

How I tried to save the world on the very first Earth Day

the earth with clouds above it against a black background

I was a teenaged environmentalist.

And because, at the age of 17, I took part in the very first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, I grew up with a lifelong respect for this tiny, lovely blue-green marble we live on.

By April 1970, human beings had made a stinking mess of our planet; and nowhere more so than in the industrial cities of the United States.

I lived in one of those places — Dayton, Ohio.

In those days, there was no Clean Air Act, no Clean Water Act. Industrial smokestack belched toxic smoke into the atmosphere at will; toxic wastes were dumped directly into rivers and streams.

Dayton was no different. In fact, in many ways, it was one of the worst offenders.

My best friend Dale True and I were juniors at Belmont High School on Dayton's east side, and we were determined to fight back in whatever way we could.

When Gaylord Nelson, a liberal Democratic senator from Wisconsin, created Earth Day as a way to raise awareness of the toll pollution was taking on our country, Dale and I jumped in with both feet.

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Mrs. Hussey, a young and hip teacher in a school full of white-haired fossils, was our social studies teacher; and she encouraged Dale and me to get involved.

One of the best teachers I ever had. She taught us that it was one thing to talk about problems and quite another to actually do something to make change happen.

She preferred action to talk.

We decided we could make the biggest impact as amateur filmmakers, documenting the worst examples of air and water pollution we could find in Dayton, a heavily industrial city.

Dale's father, an officer in the Dayton fire department, owned a 16-millimeter film camera. We had borrowed it a number of times in the past to make goofy little comedies staged in Dale's backyard.

We borrowed it again in advance of Earth Day for a much more serious purpose.

Camera in tow, we went downtown and walked along the banks of the Great Miami River, filming nearly everything we saw — great clouds of black smoke pouring out of smokestacks, outfalls of sewage and industrial waste going directly into the river, dead fish washed up on the shoreline.

It was a very grim tableau.

Eventually we turned it into a 15-minute film documenting air and water pollution — a film that, as I recall, wasn't half-bad for a couple of teenaged amateurs.

Mrs. Hussey was impressed. I don't know how she did it, but she convinced a Dayton TV station, WLWD (now WDTN), to have us as guests on an early Sunday morning talk show, where we could show the film and talk with the host about Earth Day and how people could help save the environment.

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I can't imagine that many people were watching at that hour on a Sunday morning. Our competition was Davey and Goliath and station test patterns.

But we talked and talked, offering free advice and talking about the film.

The host, whose name I can't recall, took us seriously; he wasn't condescending to a couple of goofy-looking kids.

I remember talking about how gardeners could avoid harmful pesticides with natural methods of killing pests.

A pan full of stale beer, I said, would kill slugs that attack your plants.

It sounded like sage advice, but later, I heard from Bruce, my father's best friend from his job at the Dayton health department, who asked me a question I was not prepared to answer: What the heck do you know about gardening?

But the show seemed to be well-received by the host, the friends and family who were watching, along with whatever people nursing Saturday hangovers who tuned in by accident.

Mrs. Hussey was ecstatic. And that meant the world to us.

But we were not done yet.

Belmont High School's campus was an isolated place, almost devoid of natural beauty. It needed sprucing up. It needed trees.

Dale and I haggled with the principal, a dour man, to allow us to plant a line of redbud trees along the west side of the building as an Earth Day project.

He didn't really like the idea — beauty was an unnecessary luxury in the cold, cruel world he lived in. But he finally relented; and we spent a weekend planting a neat row of redbud stripling that came from the citywide Earth Day project.

The trees, of course, grew over the years. They were gorgeous.

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But, in 2011, a new Belmont High School building opened nearby. In March 2012, the old school was demolished.

I stopped by the original Belmont site a few months later on a visit to Dayton. I was almost afraid to do it, because I had a feeling that our redbud trees didn't survive the demolition.

I was right. The trees were gone. It was a very sad moment for me.

But we tried. We just couldn't beat "progress."

All I can hope is that our trees were turned into mulch.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.