By Jane Ross, August 2017.
The sun breaking through the misty late afternoon sky was a perfect omen for the glowing accolades to come for beloved community leader Mary Anne Guitar at her memorial gathering on August 12 at Lonetown Meadow. Family members, dear friends and those who had known and thrived under her special gifts of strength, vision and companionship took to the podium one by one to recount the important influence she had on their lives.
Nick Zittell opened the tributes as he talked of spending each Christmas with Mary Anne, one of the Smith alumna pals of his mother who with other Smith alums “adopted” him and his twin brother on the untimely death of his mother in childbirth. Guitar’s Connecticut cousin Mary Guitar, who spent much time with Mary Anne and was of great comfort to her in recent years, recounted highlights of her life which had its roots in Missouri before college and a stint as an editor and writer in New York City and then becoming for many years a legendary part of Redding, Carrick Blair, Mary Anne’s longtime gardener, spoke of her passion for trees and flowers and plants of every kind, especially her heirloom tomatoes.
Bill Hill, owner of Warrup’s Farm, talked of the passionate cooperation between Guitar and his father Sam Hill, first chairman on the Town’s Conservation Commission, who together helped found the conservation movement in Redding. Mary Erlanger, who always shared birthday parties with her close friend and who ran Guitar’s successful campaigns for First Selectman, told of her early years in public life.
Gene Connolly, Trustee of the Redding Land Trust for forty-four years, spoke of Guitar’s life as a gardener, reader, writer and activist in warm and personal terms. Of Mary Anne, one of the Trust’s founders and its long-serving President, he said, “You are fierce, ferocious and fantastic, we all loved being on your exciting team, earnest, ambitious and successful…your fifty seven years here have been a beautiful, splendid era.”
Kerry Canfield, Mary Anne’s favorite companion and helper in her older years, spoke of how she could continue to exert her influence on and share her advice with others well into her nineties. Ann Taylor, director of New Pond Farm, where Guitar was Board Chair for many years, detailed her work with New Pond’s owner Carmen Matthews in assuring the Farm’s flourishing today. The Town’s Land Use Manager Jo-an Brooks read a proclamation from First Selectman Julia Pemberton outlining Guitar’s history as a public servant as Selectman and the first woman First Selectman serving for six two-year terms. Former First Selectman Natalie Ketcham, who noted that as a Republican she and Democrat Guitar were sometimes at odds, tipped her hat to her colleague’s ubiquity be saying. “I wanted a pool in Redding. Mary Anne did not. You know who won.”
Tina Miller, Guitar’s good friend and fellow Smith College alumna, had the last tribute, reading from a memoir of Guitar’s words that she had assembled though an interview and other clever means. The entire manuscript is posted here.
The crowd of some 150 people then mingled to drink champagne and exchange their favorite memories of Mary Anne. The red barn behind the Redding Historical Society was filled with memorabilia from Guitar’s ninety-five amazing years as friend, mentor, bon vivant and leader.
From Tina Miller
You’ve heard all about Mary Anne’s life and accomplishments from the others who have spoken today –about Mary Anne the loyal and loving friend, brilliant strategist, raconteur without peer, bon vivant, cook and host par excellence, accomplished wordsmith, dedicated environmentalist, and inspired gardener--about her vision and humor and warmth.
Is there anything still left to say after all that? Well, for one thing, I can say with complete certainty that Mary Anne would have wanted to be here today to listen to what we were saying about her.
But since she couldn’t join us, I wondered how I could convey something of Mary Anne’s own inimitable voice. Luckily, among Mary Anne’s possessions was this little Green book that I’m holding up now, in which are collected some of pithy sayings. And so, I present to you: Quotations from Chairman Mary Anne Guitar*:
It all began in St. Joe in 1922. I lived there until I was seventeen and went off to Smith College to find freedom, hope and opportunity. My father said I had a very happy childhood. My Aunt Clara said it was perfectly horrible. Somewhere in-between lies the truth.
We lived next to Corby Grove, my first experience with open space. I went out with my dog, Spotty, every day prowling around, catching tadpoles, baking mud balls for neighborhood fights, carrying my beebee gun, having a totally free and unfettered childhood.
Starting in high school, I knew what I wanted to do—have a literary career. I remember someone saying to me, oh, maybe you can be Ernest Hemingway’s secretary and I said, no, I want to be Ernest Hemingway. I knew I could make a living at it and I did. I was a freelance writer and I was good at it.
The magazine business was a lot like college in one way because it was all contacts, all connections, all networking, all having lunch with an editor and trying to sell a story. It was a totally entrepreneurial life and it suited me. People who like certitude shouldn’t be freelancers and they shouldn’t be politicians.
I feel I was lucky that the thing that was the perfect fit for me also turned out to be the timely, trendy thing of the 70’s, which was the environment. When I located myself on that spectrum I was home.
Betty Friedan and I used to sit around and have lunch and talk about how we could become celebrities without actually doing anything. Well, we both worked very hard to achieve something, and I found that through Redding. If I hadn’t come to Redding, of course, I wouldn’t have had the canvas to work on. I had no idea that Redding would turn into a career.
The title for my political playbook is Bipartisan Coalition for Clean & Green. You could always attract people, regardless of their politics, if you had an agenda on an issue that everybody could agree on-- and that was clean environment, lots of open space, good schools and a rural atmosphere and slow growth.
Things like the power line come back. It’s like woodchucks in your garden. It’s nice to know that you have defeated so-called progress, and I’m proud of it.
I was the first woman First Selectman. Nobody is really trained for this. That’s what’s great about politics. It is the ideal place for a generalist.
It’s always exhilarating to be in public life if you’re on the side of the angels. You have to be, in fact. Somebody in town once said to me, you must have skin of a crocodile. I said, “Well, you develop it.” It must be some masochistic trait but I think it goes back to the old general up there, I mean there was just something about the pleasure of doing them in. Nothing beats it.
You have to be able to look out a little bit –to be able to anticipate and have some foresight. I don’t see how people are going to operate without knowing how it’s going to work out ––having 360 degree vision—you have to see around corners and see who’s coming.
In political life, it was really hard to have to tolerate so many suggestions from people. I didn’t want anybody to tell me what to do. That’s why my cat and I are so much alike. And yet you develop that ability. If the goal is important enough and your motivation is strong enough and you want to get there enough, you grin and bear it and listen and then just go do the opposite.
One of my old political cronies gave me a T-shirt, which said: “I may have my faults but being wrong isn’t one of them.”
My cat Marguerite, known as Shorty because the vet said, “Hey Shorty, hold still,” is determined to be a person, and succeeding. Cats are more like freelance people. They’re on their own. This cat has a power over other people that I admire.
They always say there’s a Guitar gardening gene and I certainly got it. I love all these wild colors in the garden. Whenever I go back to Smith, I go to the botanic garden and say to myself, why didn’t you take that instead of Physics?
People garden according to their temperaments and the way they see life, and the satisfaction they get out of it or don’t get out of it. So it’s all learning about what’s living in a garden. Living a composted life. Just keep replenishing it with people and gardens and issues.
*Drawn from the 2002 Oral History: Tina Miller interview with Mary Anne Guitar
Here's to the girl from Corby Grove who made --and did--good. Her foresight, leadership, intelligence and friendship have improved the lives of those around her, and many more to come. She had the vision and determination to keep our Town a nice place to live. Kudos, with love and gratitude to Mary Anne --the mentor who truly led by example.