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‘She saw things the rest of us did not’

Marion Stoddart paddles on the Nashua River last summer during filming of a documentary about her pioneering environmental efforts. Marion Stoddart paddles on the Nashua River last summer during filming of a documentary about her pioneering environmental efforts. (Shervin Arya)
By John Dyer
Globe Correspondent / June 10, 2010

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Americans feeling distraught as they watch thousands of gallons of oil pour into the Gulf of Mexico every day might take heart from Groton resident Marion Stoddart.

In the early 1960s, Stoddart felt frustrated about the noxious dyes that colored the Nashua River near her home red, yellow, or blue, depending on what paper the Fitchburg mills were producing that day. Now a team of Massachusetts filmmakers is celebrating her refusal to believe she couldn’t clean up the mess.

After three years of production, the premiere of “Marion Stoddart: The Work of 1000’’ is scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday at Lawrence Academy’s Richardson-Mees Performing Arts Center in Groton, with a fund-raising reception after the free screening. The film tells how a suburban housewife changed national perceptions about fouled waterways that many viewed as unredeemable.

“We can apply Marion’s methods and the lessons she learned to now,’’ said the film’s producer, Pepperell resident Susan Edwards, referring to the oil spill off Louisiana. “How do you engage to change things? How do you mobilize?’’

Stoddart’s campaign, including forming an activist group that eventually became the Nashua River Watershed Association, is widely credited with persuading Beacon Hill to adopt the 1966 Massachusetts Clean Water Act, the first in the United States and a blueprint for federal reforms in the early 1970s, including the Clean Water Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Until that time, most Americans accepted the industrial runoff that had been polluting US waterways since Colonial times. Chemical-laden rivers catching fire, fish kills, and raw sewage were often tolerated as necessary evils associated with good manufacturing jobs. Using interviews with Stoddart, now 82, and her family, environmentalists, and politicians, as well as period films and photos, the 30-minute documentary explains how she overcame those perceptions.

In one scene, Stoddart brings a jar of disgusting Nashua River water to then-Governor John Volpe to persuade him to support proposed clean water legislation. Soon after her visit, Volpe signs the measure, and Stoddart launches a lobbying effort to persuade reluctant municipalities to build water-treatment plants to meet the new rule’s standards.

“Going to a city council back then and asking for a $30 million bond issue to clean up a river, that’s pretty hard to sell,’’ former Fitchburg mayor Bill Flynn says in the film.

Fitchburg built the treatment plant, but Stoddart didn’t stop there. She also wanted land set aside on either side of the river for pedestrians and cyclists, a greenway that is now being developed but which seemed overly ambitious at the time.

“She always wanted more, and I would say to her sometimes, ‘Marion, you’re pushing too hard on this one,’ ’’ Flynn says. “As I look back on it, she saw things the rest of us did not.’’

Moving from her native Nevada to Groton in 1962, when her nuclear physicist husband was conducting research at MIT, Stoddart embraced environmental activism as an alternative to the boredom of housekeeping and to fulfill her intense Protestant work ethic.

“I was thinking, ‘Why am I here on this earth,’ ’’ she says in the film. “ ‘What is it that I am supposed to be doing?’ The best thing I can do is create the greatest challenge for myself. I’ve always been bound by guilt. That’s always provided a lot of motivation in my life.’’

The name of the film derives from a minor event that occurred when Stoddart was particularly depressed about her perceived lack of purpose. “There was one Sunday I had the radio turned on,’’ Stoddart says. “There was this program, an inspirational program. And the person speaking said one person can do the work of a thousand, and I thought ‘Wow.’ ’’

The film also discusses the human side of Stoddart’s achievement. Unlike most mothers in the early 1960s, she worked as an activist and didn’t devote herself entirely to her family. It’s common now, but at the time her children occasionally felt neglected.

“She was on the telephone a lot when we needed her,’’ says Stoddart’s daughter, Heather Barros. “Our house was filled with paperwork and a little mimeograph machine with stacks of notes and petitions and telephone numbers. Once I had a friend over to the house and my friend looked at all the papers and said, ‘Is your mother the mailman?’ ’’

Edwards said the film cost around $150,000 to produce. Most of the money came from individual donations, but the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities and the Massachusetts Cultural Council also provided help. Watertown-based nonprofit Documentary Educational Resources sponsored the project, and will help Edwards and the film’s director, Somerville resident Dorie Clark, distribute the film to festivals and schools around the world.

Edwards and her colleagues said they were relieved to finish the movie, their job isn’t done. The need to challenge social and economic norms — like putting up with dirty rivers or America’s dependence on fossil fuels — is a key lesson of the documentary, they said, and they hope to show how Stoddart’s activism was difficult but worth the struggle.

“It’s kind of an homage’’ to Stoddart, said video editor Peter Rhodes, a consultant on “The Work of 1000’’ who has also edited for WGBH’s “Frontline’’ series.

“She ushered in this golden age of people being really aware and being strict about how we should look at the environment. People of a newer generation don’t even know how filthy those rivers were.’’

More information on the film, and details on tickets to Saturday’s premiere and related events, can be found at www.workof1000.com, or by calling 617-834-7315.

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