By Jeff Harder
When you visit Crane Beach in Ipswich as often as Fernando Álvarez-González does, the landscape reveals all the subtleties of the seasons: footprints in the sand once the spring breeze loses its bite, piping plovers hatching at the height of summer, the half-full parking lot announcing the bittersweet arrival of autumn. "September is my favorite month at Crane Beach—it always has been," says Álvarez-González, a 45-year-old resident of Amesbury. "It's sad in a way because the days are shorter, but there are some sunsets that are just spectacular."
Today, Álvarez-González is a noteworthy addition to the Semper Virens Society whose planned gift was inspired by his love of Crane Beach and appreciation for the work of The Trustees. Twenty years ago, however, he was a graduate school student who'd just arrived in Massachusetts after living his entire life in northwest Spain. The temperate climate of his upbringing made harsh New England winters hard to bear—sometimes it feels like they lasted six months, he says—so he made the most of the sunshine as soon as the snow melted. "I remember my school friends telling me that Crane Beach was probably the most beautiful beach in Massachusetts," he says. "Even before I had a car, we'd carpool there. After I got a job and my own car, I'd just drive myself."
Crane Beach was a site for simple pleasures, whether running the length of the beach and back for a workout or tromping out to a quiet spot in the sand with a chair and book. On two occasions—once at Steep Hill Beach on Crane Beach’s western edge—his sanctuary at the shore even played host to memorable company outings. Now Álvarez-González makes near-daily treks on his way home from his job at a software company in Lexington. He purchased his home in Amesbury in part because it's just 30 minutes from Crane Beach.
Along with his proximity to the place he loves, Álvarez-González's relationship with The Trustees has grown closer, too, and by the time he spoke with his attorney about estate planning, a planned gift to The Trustees was an easy decision to make. With no children of his own, his contribution meant that others could derive the same happiness from visiting Crane Beach that he'd experienced himself. "I know The Trustees can put that money to good use, and nothing would make me feel better than knowing whatever I have will help continue its mission," he says.
And as an architectural historian by training, Álvarez-González holds The Trustees’ historic and environmental preservation missions in high regard. "In Spain, you find high rises built within a few yards of the beach and everybody considers that normal—no one really thinks in terms of protecting those spaces," he says. "One of the things I fell in love with in Massachusetts is that there are still places like Crane Beach that are as undeveloped as they were a century ago. We've been able to keep them that way, but they won't stay that way forever unless we continue to make an effort."
By Jeff Harder
A 47-acre riverfront medley of farm fields and woodland trails, Slocum's River Reserve is one of the singular landscapes in Dartmouth and a highlight of The Trustees' properties on the South Coast. It's also a dear place to Jack and Betty Slocum for reasons evident in their last name: 88-year-old Jack is a tenth-generation Slocum, a family who first emigrated from England in the 1600s and claimed the area that would become the reserve centuries later.
Those strong family ties to Slocum's River Reserve are inextricable from Jack's and Betty's reasons for establishing a Charitable Gift Annuity as part of The Trustees' Semper Virens Society. "We wanted to do what we could as far as helping preserve land in Dartmouth that was once owned by the Slocum family, all the way back to the 17th century," Jack says.
In exploring the Slocum clan's genealogy, Jack discovered a great deal about the history of the riverfront terrain as well as the colorful characters that lived on it. Take Peleg Slocum, for example, a devout Quaker, farmer, and seaman who amassed a fortune—and not always through legitimate means. On occasion, Peleg was a smuggler: records from the local historical society call him "a merchant 'on the wrong side of the law’," who used a sailing vessel (and his waterfront home's proximity to Buzzards Bay) to engage in "a very profitable contraband trade." "Peleg was right down at the end of the line—he could just sail right out to the islands," says Betty, who once painted an oil-on-canvas rendering of the property's original homestead overlooking the river.
Beyond preserving a significant site from their family's past, Jack's and Betty's attention to the reserve stems from a love of the outdoors cultivated over a lifetime in New England. "When we were married in 1950 we had $20 in the bank, so for our honeymoon, we climbed Mount Moosilauke," Jack says with a laugh. Over time, the couple passed the traditions of hiking, camping, and mountain climbing down to their children. "We had five children, and since we really didn’t have the money to go to concerts and those sorts of things, we took to hiking and picnicking instead," Betty jokes. But the embrace of the outdoors was about more than finding a frugal form of leisure for a burgeoning family—it was about appreciating the wonders of nature, and putting them front and center in their lives.
The couple became members and began making gifts to The Trustees after getting acquainted with other properties, like World's End near their Hingham home. "We decided, at this point in life when we have a few dollars to spare, we could put it into something that would preserve the land in its natural state forevermore," Jack says. Ultimately, they give with hopes that Slocum's River Reserve, a place that holds so much meaning to them, can maintain its present glory for the generations of visitors to come—whether or not those visitors share the same last name.
By Jeff Harder
The Old Manse looms large in the lives of Jonathan “Jay” Keyes and his wife, Judy. In some ways, its presence is literal: The Georgian clapboard building that was a witness to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War and a hub for some of the 19th century’s most celebrated minds sits just across the Concord River from the couple’s home, and you can see Old North Bridge through their windows.
But the Keyes’ connection to the historic home is based on much more than proximity. “My involvement with The Old Manse probably began when I was seven or eight years old,” says Jay, a fourth-generation Concord resident, “and I’m now almost 80.”
In the 1930s, illness kept The Old Manse’s then-owners absent and the building itself vacant, but Jay’s grandmother convinced them to let her open the house and charge visitors 10 cents each to experience the building’s rich history up close. And after The Trustees purchased the property in 1939, both of his grandparents spent those first few summers living in the home and caring for it year-round. Keyes recalls visiting them on one summer day, falling into a small fish pool in a garden off to the left of the house, and nearly drowning. “I found myself in a bed upstairs, all wrapped up in blankets, and I thought I might expire from the heat,” he says with a laugh.
Years later, the familial links to The Old Manse grew to include the Keyes’ aunt Caroline Buttrick, who joined the Friends of The Old Manse committee—and dissuaded the folks leading the tours from wearing hokey 17th-century costumes. “She was a woman of very strong opinions,” Judy says.
In the 1960s, Judy joined the committee herself, marking the start of the couple’s nearly 50 years of hands-on involvement with The Trustees that continues today. The Old Manse was a gateway for the Keyes’ broader, deeper commitment to The Trustees: Judy served stints with the standing committee, the historic resources committee, and headed the group charged with organizing The Trustees’ centennial celebration, and today, Jay continues to serve on the Annual Giving Committee. Along with being active members of the Semper Virens Society, both husband and wife headed the Friends of The Old Manse committee at different points in time. “They had a terrible time bending the bylaws so that I could remain chairman,” Jay says, “and finally, they couldn’t bend them any further.”
In contributing so much in their decades with The Trustees, Jay and Judy have become attuned—and pleased—with the organization’s work far and beyond the preservation of their beloved neighbor in Concord. While they laud the organization’s increased attention to historic homes and cultural institutions, they appreciate every aspect of the organization’s mission, from stewarding open space in the Berkshires, to augmenting and restoring agricultural destinations like Appleton Farms, to securing oases in urban settings. “Just feeling like you’re a tiny part of the overall effort is satisfying,” Jay says.
But the Keyes’ lifetime of service toward The Trustees’ efforts always circles back to that place just across the river where it all began. “The Old Manse has so much depth, and it’s unpretentious,” Judy says. “It just sort of sits there to remind us all that life used to be a little bit different, and that slowing down wouldn’t hurt.”
By Jeanne O’Rourke
“It all started with a tie,” says Susan Harding, when asked how she and her husband Doug first stepped foot onto The Trustees landscape. He picks up the story: “I went to my 30th Harvard reunion, and [then-Trustees president] Fred Winthrop was there wearing an amazing 1891 tie.” When Doug said that he’d love to get a tie for himself, Fred sent one to him. “I sent him back a check for a hundred bucks,” continues Doug. “Well, that’s when he called me and thanks very much, but that tie’s going to cost you more than that!”
That tie set this energetic, thoughtful couple on a path of support for an organization whose mission they’ve embraced for almost a quarter of a century—as donors, as volunteers, and as Semper Virens Society members. As they stand together looking out over their own landscape at their Lincoln home, they explain why The Trustees are so close to their hearts.
“We started visiting Trustees properties out in the Berkshires—real gems like Naumkeag and Ashintully,” Doug says. “We love the historic homes—Bryant is another jewel—but we’re also real plant people.”
That might be an understatement. The Hardings’ backyard is a true testament to their passion for a particular plant: they grow and cultivate 300 different species or hybrids of rhododendrons in their secluded oasis, which also includes a grass allée and substantial vegetable garden.
Since those early explorations, the couple’s enthusiasm for The Trustees’ work has grown along with the organization’s priorities. Doug applauds the agricultural work in particular, mentioning both Dover’s Powisset Farm and the partnership with Nuestras Raices at Holyoke’s Land of Providence reservation. “So many children these days don’t have a chance to see where food really comes from. I was originally surprised to learn that The Trustees are the largest private owner of farmland in Massachusetts. The preservation of that kind of land—and keeping it in use—is something to be really proud of.”
This dynamic duo puts a premium on giving back: Doug, formerly a professional in the healthcare industry, is a member of The Trustees’ Advisory Council, Advancement Committee, and Annual Giving Committee, which he now chairs. They host Harvard international students, and served as co-treasurers of the Rhododendron Society for five years. Susan, who worked at the New England Telephone Company as a programmer before staying home to raise their children, is also active in the National Society of Colonial Dames of America, which helps fuel her passion for preservation.
“In the 100 years that followed the American Revolution, so many pieces of history were lost irrevocably. But things like artifacts are so precious, and public parks and lands are so magnificent; together they’re really part of the grandeur of our country, and we need to work hard to preserve them.” Susan sums up she and Doug’s collective attitude best as she bustles around their yard, deadheading flowers and leaves as she talks, “I don’t think preservation has to be exclusively at a high financial level—it’s an attitude. It’s up to all of us to either save that heritage, or let it go.” We couldn’t agree more.
By Jeanne O’Rourke
John McLennan, accomplished composer of contemporary music and creator of Ashintully Gardens in Tyringham, almost seemed an accidental gardener. His wife Katherine recounts the genesis of the masterpiece that would eventually become his opus, “It started out as just wild country: John didn’t even have a plan for it in the beginning. He just started cleaning and clearing, little by little, bit by bit each year. I almost could say that it grew itself, with his encouragement. He had no idea what lay ahead until he did it.”
What he did over the course of 30 years was to blend natural forms—a stream, native deciduous trees, a rounded knoll, and rising flanking meadows—into an ordered and stunning arrangement with both formal and informal beauty. It’s renowned as such a masterpiece today that garden clubs and landscape architects across the country have put it on their must-see lists for years. Mrs. McLennan recounts the particular effect Ashintully has on its visitors, “Several years ago an elderly landscape architect came to see the gardens, and when I met him, he had tears in his eyes at the graceful quality of John’s work. It’s truly a very nourishing place.”
John McLennan, Jr., spent his childhood summers on the idyllic estate, the centerpiece of which was a 35-room Georgian-style mansion (the “Marble Palace,” as it was known, was ravaged by fire in 1952—today only its massive Doric columns remain, a romantic ruin in the midst of the beautiful garden.) After inheriting the estate in 1937, John brought Katharine to live in the farmhouse on the property. Then, starting in 1977, the couple began gifting large parcels of land to The Trustees. Those initial acres—nearly 500 in all gifted over 14 years—became the McLennan Reservation, with its wild-forested hills and wetlands tucked into Tyringham Valley. “Later, when we found out John had cancer, it became so important to him that the gardens also go to The Trustees. It was his life’s work, and he couldn’t have borne it if Fred [Winthrop, then Executive Director] had said they didn’t want it.”
But who wouldn’t want such a cultural and historic living gem, to inspire others? Katharine recalls a tender moment from decades ago: “It was 1976 and John was trimming the grass by the stone steps with hair scissors and I started to started to laugh to myself at the sight. John turned around with a blissful expression on his face and said ‘I think if I had known how much I would love it, and how good I am at it…’ For the most modest man in the world to compliment himself on his achievement—and to recognize that it was his gift, I was thrilled.”
Katharine, a long-time Semper Virens Society member who more recently donated her final remaining interest in Ashintully Gardens to The Trustees, continues, “It was wonderful for him to know that his legacy would stand. I was really just an admirer. I just truly loved what he did.” And, thanks to the McLennans’ amazing generosity, so can everyone else.
By Jeanne O’Rourke
Engineer. Obsessive organizer. Silversmith. If these three occupations don’t exactly seem connected, then you haven’t met Jeff Kontoff. A Semper Virens society member, longtime volunteer, and a key facet of the Historic Resources Committee, Kontoff has earned a claim to all three.
When asked about his fateful first encounter with The Trustees, Jeff Kontoff says, “I don’t remember when I joined, how I joined, or why I joined.” But, fortunately for us he did join, and has since become an important agent in meticulously cataloguing historical artifacts at both Naumkeag and Mission House in Stockbridge.
In describing his ongoing volunteer work of painstakingly searching, photographing, categorizing, and digitizing artifacts in the historic houses, he laughs. “It’s a drudge job that most people hate to do—but I love it. I’ve always loved organizing information.” When friends discover his dedication to this particular brand of work, most assume he came to the job with a lifelong love of history. “Not at all. It’s the categorizing itself that interests me.”
He explains: the process all begins with a chosen room and a tall stack of index cards. It’s Jeff’s job to find each object on the card, photograph it, upload the image into a database specially designed for museum collections, and then type in all the existing information about an item into its database record. “Sometimes the hard part is actually finding the object—stashed away in a corner or hiding in a dark cubby. It can be a bit of a treasure hunt.”
Kontoff moved to Western Massachusetts shortly after graduating from Northeastern University for a job in Springfield. Inspired by his years at summer camp as a boy, he began exploring what the area had to offer: scenic views, stunning foliage, and open spaces. His wanderings eventually led him to The Trustees, first to enjoy the properties, and later to help preserve them.
A chemical engineer by trade, Kontoff has most recently embarked on turning his silversmithing hobby into a fledgling business. He sells his one-of-a kind pieces in local galleries, and by word-of-mouth. How did this engineer-turned-silversmith get inspired to become a de facto philanthropist?
“The Trustees are just one of those very worthy organizations,” Kontoff says. “The properties, historic houses, staff, and other volunteers are all so impressive and so talented. I’m amazed at the people I’ve met here. I know it takes a lot of resources to maintain each and every property, and I want to support that.”
Does he have plans to retire from his volunteer gig? “As long as there are things to do, I’ll keep doing it,” Kontoff says. Lucky for us—and a state full of treasures still waiting to be found—this modest Renaissance man is one of his word.