TRAVERSE CITY — Robert “Bob” Russell, a driving force behind some of the biggest water quality improvements, recycling efforts, and peace movements in the Grand Traverse region, has died.
Russell, 62, died Friday at a Glen Lake home surrounded by family. He was diagnosed with cancer in May 2011.
A community advocate, Russell believed in educating the public about important issues and minimizing human impact on the environment. He co-founded the Neahtawanta Research and Education Center with is wife, Sally Van Vleck, and served as chairman of the Grand Traverse Board of Public Works that upgraded the city wastewater treatment plant into a state-of-the-art facility.
“He was just a powerful advocate for justice and truth and for taking care of the earth and for spreading knowledge. For educating people on issues,” Van Vleck said. “I’m really grateful for the time we had together. Very grateful. I’m pretty much in awe of my husband.”
John Nelson, Baykeeper with the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, called Russell’s work to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant “critical” to the health of the bay.
“He was the moving force, the guy who got the community behind the wastewater treatment plant we have today,” Nelson said. “And, he did it the right way.”
Russell led a series of community meetings to generate support for expensive plant upgrades and let people know up front it would result in a significant rate increase. The upgrade not only expanded plant capacity but added a third level of treatment that produced an effluent discharged into the Boardman River of drinking water clarity.
Nelson said other communities on the bay have followed Traverse City’s example with state of the art treatment plants and upgrades.
“Bob knew what he was talking about that’s for sure,” Nelson said. “He was a very bright man, a wonderful man.”
County Commissioner Larry Inman served with Russell on the county’s solid waste committee and said he was a great asset to the county for his leadership on both recycling and the wastewater treatment plant upgrades.
“The guy was brilliant,” Inman said. “There wasn’t anybody who had more knowledge and foresight about solid waste and recyclables. We really relied on him.”
Area environmental and land use groups also looked to Russell as a leader and role model with the ability to forge collaborative approaches to issues.
“I think we’ve helped people cooperate and work on things together,” Russell told the Record-Eagle in 2012. “We’ve tried not to be polarizing. That’s important work. Sometimes there’s a clear line — this is right and that is wrong, but rarely.
“The world is shades of gray, not black and white,” he said.
Hans Voss, exeuctive director for the Michigan Land Use Institute, said Russell was a leader in the environmental, peace and justice movement in the region for decades.
“If there was a meaningful cause, there was a good chance Bob was at the center of it,” Voss said. “He was fun, too, a light-hearted guy who never took himself too seriously.”
Sarna Salzman, SEEDS executive director, started working with the Neahtawanta Center about 12 years ago when the center and SEEDS co-hosted the first Great Lakes Bioneers conference.
She said Russell was never afraid to “spark and discuss real innovative ideas on a small and large scale.”
“We talked about raising chickens in your backyard at a Bioneers conference,” Salzman said. “It seemed like a crazy idea at the time but now we have a city ordinance about it.”
A memorial will be held on Sept. 7. Details will be released in a full obituary to follow in the Record-Eagle.