There are figures in the long lives of baby boomers whose impact was felt directly … and others whose influence sometimes came through the lips of others. So it was with the late Pete Seeger. Author and University of Southern Maine professor Robert Atkinson was the beneficiary of both, as he writes in Remembering Pete.
As we’ve seen in the online outpouring of personal tributes since his passing, Pete Seeger’s influence runs wide and deep across all generations and communities. I can only attempt to add to this reawakening of hope that Pete came along at the perfect time in my life and gave me that sense of undying hope, as well.
When I approached him, in 1968, to ask if he could help with my master’s thesis on the life story of Harry Siemsen, a Catskill mountain farmer-singer he knew well, he did not hesitate. He mentioned during our meeting that he was raising funds to build a replica of an old cargo sloop like those that sailed the Hudson River a century ago. He wanted to draw people down to the river so they would want to clean it up. I said I would keep an eye out for it.
A year later, I noticed a local newspaper announcement of the “Clearwater” arriving in Port Jefferson harbor. I dropped everything, went to see it, talked with Pete about their plans, and offered to help research life on the river in the days of the sloops. He said, “You know, we’re working on an exhibit of the ecology of the river, but the history of the river needs to be told, too. Can you meet us in New York and sail with us to Albany? We can talk more about it then.”
Just like that, I became the only non-singing crew member on that maiden voyage from New York to Albany. Pete was magnanimous and generous beyond expectations. He became the mentor I didn’t know I needed, in both direct and indirect ways.
In fact this was the beginning of a series of adventures that became my memoir, Remembering 1969: Searching for the Eternal in Changing Times. In the summer of my awakening, Pete was a balm to my soul, providing just the right guideposts for my journey.
In welcoming me aboard, and taking me under his wing, he jump-started my writing career by providing opportunities that would have never been there otherwise, like getting an article in the special issue of Audubon magazine on the Hudson River. Working closely with him, and observing his example, gave me a goal to live for, a standard to live up to, and a philosophy to live by: “Everything in the world is tied together. You clean up the river, and soon you have to work on cleaning up society.” He even connected me with the owner of a cabin in the woods, just down the hill from his home, which became a perfect writing retreat. He was an inspiration in every way.
Pete was a lover of humanity, the consummate community-builder, bringing “young and old, black and white, rich and poor, long-hair and crew-cut” together.
Thanks, Pete, for being such a magnetic force for goodness, and for setting my life in the direction it was meant to go.
Robert Atkinson is professor of human development and director of Life Story Commons at the University of Southern Maine. He is author of “Mystic Journey: Getting to the Heart of Your Soul’s Story.”