Bob Russell was a Renaissance man, but probably would have laughed at the description.
Russell, who died Aug. 23 at 62 years of age, was an activist and advocate, an educator and a seeker of truth, a man who inspired and was inspired to take on dozens of roles in his life. His obituary was a reflection of his thirst for knowledge and his commitment to the many communities he was a part of:
“Bob had many vocations and avocations, including: teacher, screen-printer, photographer, downtown Traverse City business owner (Ernie’s Soft Earthwares), co-founder of the first local internet business (Traverse Communications Company), longtime environmental/peace activist, gearhead, past chairman of the Grand Traverse County Solid Waste Council and Department of Public Works, community organizer, web developer, handyman, cook, father, husband, son, and fun-haver.”
But even that description doesn’t adequately reflect Russell’s impact on the Grand Traverse area. As chairman of the Grand Traverse Board of Public Works he led the charge to turn the plant into a truly state-of-the-art facility that discharges water of drinking water clarity into the Boardman River.
He pushed the county create a septage treatment plant to further protect the environment that, if county officials had listened to his advice, would not have turned into the financial albatross it has become.
“The guy was brilliant,” said Grand Traverse County Commissioner Larry Inman, who served on the county’s solid waste committee. “There wasn’t anybody who had more knowledge and foresight about solid waste and recyclables. We really relied on him.”
Beyond those concrete achievements, however, Russell will perhaps be best remembered for inspiring untold numbers of people to embrace the environment, advocate for peace and to collaborate and cooperate. He was a leader in everything he did.
“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.
Russell co-founded the Neahtawanta Research and Education Center with Sally Van Vleck, his wife and partner in dozens of projects, who survives. They were both founding members of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council. They have run the Neahtawanta Inn since 1987.
A memorial is scheduled for noon Sunday followed by a potluck on the lawn at the village at Grand Traverse Commons.