- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
At the late Tom Wisner’s celebration of life in April 2010, many spoke about his unfinished work, and this past year his friends have continued his work ensuring that his creativity will last generations and foster respect for the environment.
Known as the “Bard of the Chesapeake,” Wisner, a multitalented writer, singer/songwriter, artist and environmental educator who had a love for the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, created the organization Chestory The Center for the Chesapeake Story. In early 2000, he began collecting artists, scientists, citizen activists, educators, poets, writers and waterfolk who believed in the idea that art, song and story can help people connect with the deep spiritual experience of the Chesapeake, and in turn foster a relationship with the surrounding elements, its website states.
Walter Boynton, an advisor of Chestory since its inception, met Wisner when he shared a dorm room with him in 1969 at the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons, and they remained good friends. His vision for Chestory remained the same, he said, adding that Wisner’s hope was that through education, art and spiritual existence, people will have “a more caring, respectful attitude and actions relative to the land, the air and the water.”
Wisner, who had a master’s degree in biology, began blending the arts with science at the lab in the 1970s when it was unusual and not popular, but the director of the lab at the time, Gene Cronin, was a great supporter of using the arts to teach the sciences, said Boynton, who holds a doctorate in environmental engineering and has been a professor at the laboratory since 1975. Boynton’s wife, Mary Ellen, whom he met through Wisner, has been shifting through Wisner’s works at the Calvert Marine Museum and putting them into “major categories” organizing them to get a better sense of direction, he said.
Teaching through words, images
The Calvert Marine Museum Curator of Maritime History Richard Dodds said that Wisner who died at age 79 on April 2, 2010, after battling cancer talked to Dodds about having the museum serve as a repository for his work, and the museum agreed to house his audio and visual work, his journals, drawings and photographs.
In late 2008, “Tom was thinking about what would happen to his work when he was gone,” he said.
Instead of just becoming an archive, Wisner wanted to create “a virtual archive,” so that his work would not just sit still on shelves, he said.
“He wanted to take it a step further,” Dodds said, continuing that he wanted to have the story of the Chesapeake available to schools for environmental education through the Internet.
Wisner wrote about “elemental people,” the watermen, farmers and the people who connected with the elements: water and land, Dodds said. He got to know them by listening to them, taking notes and recording them, he said.
When Wisner was diagnosed with cancer, Dodds said Wisner began talking with all of the people involved in Chestory, asking them to finish his work.
“We’re kind of coordinating it together,” Dodds said.
Sara Ebenreck Leeland, who taught about the environment at St. Mary’s College of Maryland until she retired in 2002, said, “I had been an admirer of his works since he put out his first CD,” which was “Chesapeake Born” in 1979. Leeland said she introduced herself to him, and in 1998 they co-founded Chestory and began creating the content for a website with his philosophy and work, with Chestory becoming a project of the Planet Earth, a nonprofit started by St. Mary’s County resident Erik Jansson.
“He channeled his love life into the love of the Chesapeake,” Leeland said, mentioning that she could sense his love for the elemental people he got to know. Leeland, who after 35 years living in the Chesapeake region moved back to her birth state on the shores of Lake Michigan in 2005, worked with Wisner organizing his works. Leeland just finished compiling some of Wisner’s writings for a book titled “Gather 'Round Chesapeake,” which she said is planned to be out this fall.
“He was full of images. That’s why his songs work so well, they’re full of images,” she said, mentioning that he organized his work by images and not analytically, and all of his writings read like poetry.
“I was trying to let it be the voice of Tom Wisner,” she said of the book.
Wisner was no stranger to writing books. In the 1980s he wrote and illustrated a 270-page textbook for a Chesapeake humanities course for the University of Maryland, College Park, which earned him the university’s Excellence in Teaching Award, and a commendation for the course book, Leeland said.
Taking over Leeland’s tasks at Chestory is Joan Clements, the current project coordinator for Chestory, which now falls under the nonprofit Chesapeake Education, Arts and Research Society. CHEARS, an organization Clements founded, is dedicated to the health of all who share the Chesapeake watershed environment, and is based in Greenbelt.
Through a recent grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust Chesapeake Conservation Corps, Chestory and CHEARS have hired someone for two, six-month internships, with the Chestory six months set aside to organize Wisner’s works and continue to develop the Chestory Archive of Regional Story and Song Tom Wisner's Legacy at the Calvert Marine Museum. With so much of Wisner’s work at the museum, Dodds said it will be very time-consuming and they needed someone who could solely dedicate time to Wisner’s archive.
Clements, who was CHEARS’ executive director from 2006 to September 2010 and now is the treasurer of the board, said CHEARS has collections of Wisner’s, such as his puppets, which he used to teach children, and other artworks of his and children that he taught. They have put together a traveling exhibit called, “The Art of Healing the Chesapeake: A Tribute to Tom Wisner."
“He was very broad-thinking, integrating sciences and the arts,” she said.
He would talk about the changing of the seasons so poetically, Clement said, adding, “He just had such a feel for what it means to be living in nature. The kids got a sense of it, too.”
His music lives on
Chestory is working to publish a children’s songbook of Wisner’s music with the help of St. Mary’s County resident Kathy Glaser, who gave her young students the opportunity to have Wisner sing and teach them beginning in the early 1980s, and he continued when she was principal at Hollywood Elementary School in St. Mary’s County. Wisner had several local musicians informally play his songs with him, but the notes were not written out by Wisner because he did not write or read music. Musicians learned to play his songs by listening to him and his recordings.
Wisner, who was presented the 2002 John Denver Award by the World Folk Music Association, recorded three albums of original songs that pertain to the water and elemental people surrounding the bay and Patuxent River. And in December 2007, Wisner was awarded the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award by the Chesapeake Music Institute for his 40-year career.
Folksinger and guitarist Mac Walter, who played music with Wisner for many years, said he still plays Wisner’s music. Walter, who sometimes sings with Teresa Whitaker and Frank Schwartz, said they helped Wisner get some of his music recorded and sang with him on some of his recordings.
Whitaker, who knew Wisner for 40 years, said, “There’s a poetry in his songs.” She and her husband, Schwartz, are currently working on a CD with Mac Walter and John Cronin recording all different versions of Wisner’s music. They continue to sing Wisner’s songs at concerts and are the “caretakers” of his songs. He wanted his music to be recognized as the music of the Chesapeake region and to connect with adults and children, and “I think he achieved that,” Whitaker said.
Wisner’s song, “Chesapeake Born,” is part of the Classic Maritime Music from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, and some have advocated for it to replace the current state song. Wisner remains a spotlighted artist on the Smithsonian Folkways website, and his recordings “will continue to be part of the Smithsonian collections for generations to come,” curator Jeff Place wrote on its website.
A show about the changing seasons that is narrated by Wisner and includes him singing his songs continues to be featured on the radio station WRYR-LP 97.5 FM. After Wisner was diagnosed with cancer, he worked with the station’s program director, Philip LeCroy, to ensure that his recordings for the shows called “Chesapeake Country” were protected by contract and would not be changed, LeCroy said.
“I always knew how special these shows were,” he said. The shows, which combine Wisner singing songs and telling seasonal stories about the migrations and changes of the Chesapeake, still are aired today on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings, and stream simultaneously on the radio station’s website at www.wryr.org. LeCroy is working with the Smithsonian museum to acquire more of Wisner’s seasonal programs.
“I always find myself mesmerized by him. He always has some good things to say. Tom will live on our station as long as I’m program director. He was a huge loss,” LeCroy said.
The Annual Patuxent River Wade-in, which has people concerned with water quality stepping into the bay to see how deep they can go before they no longer can see their shoes, also lives on. Former Maryland senator Bernie Fowler said in an interview with The Calvert Recorder last year that Wisner initially approached him in 1988 with the idea for the Patuxent River Wade-in.
"He was absolutely uncompromising about Mother Nature … and he made no apologies about it," said Fowler, who was a longtime friend of Wisner, and is continuing the June wade-in tradition.