By VICKI URBANIK
As the venerable Save the Dunes Council commemorates its 50th anniversary
this year, two people who profoundly influenced the council’s work in its
early days -- and who still do so today -- are having a golden celebration
of their own.
On June 20, 1952, the Save the Dunes Council officially formed, headed by a
60-some-year-old Dorothy Buell. Less than three months later, on Sept. 6,
1952, a couple in their early and mid-20s, Herb Read and Charlotte Johnson,
This story about the Reads actually begins with a comment made by Herb near
the end of a nearly three-hour interview. Sounding somewhat apologetic, he
said the purpose of this story was supposed to be about his and Charlotte’s
married life, but that they mostly talked only about saving the dunes.
It could possibly be no other way.
Herb and Charlotte met at a “Sunday Nighters” social function for single
adults at the Bryn Mawr Community Church on Chicago’s South Side, the same
church that sponsored the Cub and Boy Scout troops Herb belonged to as a
kid. The two grew up just blocks away from each other and more than likely
passed each other at one of the Chicago beaches as kids. But they never met
until that night in September of 1951.
It was a fluke that either attended the church event. Herb, who had come to
Sunday Nighters once or twice before with his cousin, had spent that Sunday
as he normally did since he was a child --- at the Indiana Dunes. But on
this particular night, the 1948 college architect graduate had just bought
his first new car, a 1951 Ford V-8, and wanted to take it for a ride.
Charlotte, a 1950 economics graduate who had just returned from San
Francisco, can’t remember who told her about Sunday Nighters, but she
decided to give it a try.
It was love at first sight -- that is, at least for Herb.
He vividly recalls how he walked into the gathering and saw “this beautiful
blond, with a knock-out figure, I might add.”
“I said, there she is. There’s the girl I’m going to marry.”
After the young people gathered in their seats for the program, Herb tried
to figure out a way to meet the woman. So caught up in trying to maneuver
meeting her that Herb wasn’t paying attention to the program and didn’t
notice her missing once the program ended. He began talking with another
woman he knew who told him there was someone she wanted him to meet.
It was the blond. Charlotte Johnson.
Herb, Charlotte and several others went to an ice cream parlor after the
program, with Herb planning it so he would sit opposite from Charlotte.
Hoping to impress her, he pulled out his wallet and showed off pictures of
his antique cars, a 1931 Studebaker, a 1936 Cord, and a 1938 Cadillac. She
was hardly impressed, but she still accepted a date with him. To the stock
car races, of all places.
“I thought, oh my God, I’ll give him a try,” Charlotte says with a laugh.
The next Sunday, the couple went to the Indiana Dunes. A year later -- 50
years ago today on Sept. 6, 1952 -- in the same church where they met, they
While the dunes have been part of Herb’s psyche since a child, Charlotte
never experienced the Indiana Dunes until that second date with Herb. She
concedes: “I was married into the Indiana Dunes.”
A House with History
Charlotte grimaces as she describes her first home with Herb. It consisted
of just two rooms, “with dark green walls,” sectioned out of a six-room
building. It was on South Harper on the South Side, next to the firehouse
that would come under investigation decades later for its rowdy parties.
It was a far cry from the houses Herb was designing at the time, including
the house on Tremont Road for his parents. Now a leaseback in the Indiana
Dunes National Lakeshore and Herb and Charlotte’s current home, the house
was visited by the dating couple while under construction. It was finished
in 1952, the year they wed.
With its expansive windows and vaulted ceiling, the home’s living room is
large and inviting with multiple views of the dunes forest. Dunes paintings
decorate the walls. Books, some about the dunes, some about war, are
abundant. On one wall, a built-in shelf displays many of the 60-some novels
written by Herb’s grandfather, Opie Read, who was described in J. Ronald
Engel’s Sacred Sands as a good friend of Carl Sandburg and Lorado Taft.
Herb’s parents bought the land in the 1940s after many years of living in
Chicago and visiting the dunes on weekends for family picnics. “We’d come
out here no matter what the weather was,” Herb said.
Even if it was raining, Herb’s mother insisted on a hot meal at the family
picnics. “I learned a long time ago you could start a fire with wet
sassafras,” he said.
Herb’s father, Philo, first visited the dunes well before the South Shore
railroad was built in 1908. Herb said he doesn’t know what attracted his
father to the dunes, except for his love of the outdoors. Born in Little
Rock, Arkansas, Philo was an artist who eventually would teach at the Art
Institute of Chicago. He knew early dunes activists Jens Jensen and Frank
Dudley and joined the Saturday Afternoon Walking Club, which later became
known as the Prairie Club. He helped the first national park effort in 1916
and participated in the famous 1917 Dunes Pageant.
Philo Read got to know Dorothy Buell through his sister (Herb’s aunt), who
was a neighbor of the Buells in Flossmoor, Ill. A 1911 Lawrence College
graduate with a degree in oratory, Buell was known in her adult years for
her lively book clubs. When Buell and her husband moved to Ogden Dunes,
Philo and his sister kept up their friendship with the Buells -- a
friendship that grew into a bond of citizen activism long before any
official environmental movement.
The turning point in Buell’s life has been well-documented: She had lived a
somewhat traditional life as a Republican housewife until 1949, when she
took a trip with her husband, Hal, to the White Sands National Monument in
New Mexico and found those dunes inferior to the dunes near her home. Upon
their return home, she and Hal stopped for dinner at the Gary Hotel, noticed
a poster in the lobby announcing a meeting that very night to “help save the
Indiana Dunes,” and, on a whim, attended the gathering, called by the
Indiana Dunes Preservation Council. A few years later, Buell was recruited
as the group’s leader. On June 20, 1952 in her home, she convened the first
meeting of the Save the Dunes Council with a group of 20 other women
hell-bent on adding Central Dunes to the Indiana Dunes State Park.
Central Dunes consisted of the best and tallest dunes, running for almost
five miles between Ogden Dunes and Dune Acres. By all accounts, they were
the most scenic, most ecologically diverse, and most scientifically rich.
Herb’s parents were among the first to sign up with the new Save the Dunes
Council, with Philo serving as the group’s first publicity director.
Naturally, the Reads got their son and his new wife interested in the cause.
The very first non-rent check that Herb and Charlotte wrote from their
checkbook together as newlyweds was for the Save the Dunes Council’s first
fall dinner in 1952.
Diapers and the Dunes
In the early days of their marriage, Charlotte worked at the Public
Administration Service in Chicago, a coalition of non-profit agencies where
she edited books and newsletters. Their first of five children, John, was
born in September, 1956. By the time the Reads moved to the north side, at a
big complex with lots of kids, they had two more children, Jim and David.
Before the children entered school, Charlotte was a full-time parent who at
times took on part-time jobs; at one point, she worked as an assistant editor
at magazine in Beverly Shores. Herb worked as an architect in Chicago, at
one point taking on a second job in Michigan City. After work, he’d travel
across the state line to meet with other Save the Duners.
Herb recalled that Buell was quite naive about the nasty politics that would
immerse the Save the Dunes Council. She felt that if lawmakers would only
see how beautiful the dunes were, they would gladly support a park.
Toward that end, Buell in 1953 spearheaded the purchase of a portion of
Cowles Bog. Herb went with Buell to Mrs. Norton Barker’s house -- now the
historic Barker House, home to the Save the Dunes Council -- to pick up a
$700 donation towards the purchase of 56 acres of the bog, which the Save
the Dunes Council ended up buying through a Porter County tax sale for
According to Sacred Sands, Buell said the bog purchase represented the
nucleus for Central Dunes to be named a national monument or added to the
But a mere four years later, Central Dunes were doomed. Bethlehem Steel
announced in 1957 that it had acquired a portion of Central Dunes, even
though it would take several years before the company would confirm its
plans for the land. According to Herb, the land was bought for $300 an acre
by what he described as a politically connected front agency, which in turn
sold the land for about $3,000 an acre to Bethlehem.
The destruction of the dunes soon began in earnest despite the fact that
proposals were already made in Congress to save the dunes in one form or
another: In 1959, National Steel began clearing the dunes on 750 acres
straddling Burns Ditch. NIPSCO followed suit, clearing its 350 acres west of
Dune Acres. In 1961, Bethlehem announced that it owned 4,350 acres in
To this day, Herb speaks with disdain of the efforts of the late U.S. Rep.
Charlie Halleck, an Indiana Republican who began his career in Congress in
1934 with a goal of getting federal funding for a deep-water port at Burns
Ditch to service industrial development. Efforts to establish a port began
in 1908, and in the late 1950s, politicians and business interests worked
together to make the port possible. In fact, in 1959, the state passed a new
law guaranteeing that the new harbor would be built in Burns Ditch; the
state later granted National and Bethlehem Steel exclusive rights to either
side of the port.
No matter how strong their convictions, no one involved with the Save the
Dunes Council at the time had an engineering background -- no one, except
for Herb. He formed an engineering committee that scoured U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers reports on the proposed port. He still expresses outrage at the
ludicrousness of tearing down the highest dunes for a deep-water port.
Though the Save the Dunes Council originally didn’t intend to fight the port
plans, Herb recalls telling Buell that the only way to save the dunes was to
stop the port.
In 1958, Buell convinced U.S. Senator Paul Douglas, a Democrat from Chicago
who had often visited the dunes, to get involved in the fight, when no
Indiana politician would. The first bill to establish a dunes park, in the
form of a national monument, was introduced by Douglas that year.
In Sacred Sands, Engel described Douglas’ effort as one of the most
prolonged legislative battles to save a piece of land in the history of the
From 1958 to 1963, Herb recalled that his engineering committee three times
successfully challenged the Corps’ cost-benefit ratios, forcing the agency
to redraw its plans each time.
Also at this time, the Reads were in their early 30s and had three boys at
home in diapers. Herb and Charlotte were asked how the family coped.
Both agreed that they, like other Save the Dunes Council members, were
getting into something which they had no clue would take so much time and
energy. But once they got involved, there was no turning back.
Neither had been involved in politics before. The extent of their public
service was this: Herb joined the Navy at 17. Charlotte had worked only for
not-for-profit agencies (a fact that remains true to this day) and was
taught early on that it was her duty to vote. “I took it to heart,” she
Herb recalls that there were many nights after meeting with the Save the
Duners that he was too tired to drive back home. “I don’t know how I did it,
either,” he said.
Charlotte said she spent a lot of time home alone with the kids.
“You just survive,” she said, matter-of-factly.
At Home in the Dunes
In 1959, Herb and Charlotte moved with their three kids to a house on State
Park Line Road. They would have two more children, Suzy and Bill, and would
stay in this house in for the next 40 years. It eventually became part of
the National Lakeshore and was later demolished.
The house needed extensive remodeling. When the Read kids jumped upstairs,
the ceiling floor downstairs caved. The house had dark purple walls,
Herb sketched the renovations needed, checking on the contractor’s work in
between his jobs and his work with the Save the Dunes Council. The Reads
made it a point to spend one day of the week as a family visiting the Dunes
State Park. “We spent as much time as possible hiking the dunes,” Herb says,
adding proudly, “My kids know every inch of the state park.”
(And just how did growing up in the dunes and having activist parents affect
how the children would turn out as adults? The reader can decide: John is in
the computer printing business; Jim is a professor of government; David is a
patent attorney with an engineering degree; Suzy works at a veterinarian
office; and Bill is a social worker with troubled teens.)
After their move here, Herb and other Save the Dunes members began giving
presentations about the dunes, visiting places like small sewing circles in
local homes and big union halls.
“We would talk to whoever would listen,” he said.
Herb photographed the untouched dunes extensively. He estimates that before
Central Dunes were leveled -- which began in early winter, 1962 -- he
accumulated 4,000 to 5,000 slides.
Within a year after excavation began, Central Dunes were gone. The sand
became fill for Northwestern University.
Herb still speaks with a deep sense of sadness and anger that the “best” of
the dunes were leveled for Bethlehem Steel. Along with an economist working
on behalf of the Save the Dunes, Herb said he predicted in the early 60s
that one day there would be a worldwide overcapacity of steel. He said he
can still remember hearing from his bedroom window the hum of the machinery
removing sand. At times, he fell into a depression. But whenever he’d
question “what’s the use?” a half hour later, he was resolved not to give
up. He viewed the dunes fight as a fight between good and bad. “They were
the bad guys,” he said.
And Herb always returned to the fight.
Herb recalled that at one point, when the Army Corps issued a new report, he
got on the phone to the Bureau of the Budget and announced that he had found
a “startling error” in the latest calculations. He was asked what it was,
and he responded that he would find it by the time he got to Washington. On
the train ride to D.C. that night, Herb pored over the report and found a
big error he was hoping for: The Army Corps double-counted benefits, arguing
that a new Indiana Port would result in cost savings over the Cal Sag and
“We convinced the Bureau of the Budget it was all phony economics,” Herb
In September, 1963, a so-called compromise was reached when President John
F. Kennedy ordered that Indiana should get both a port and a park. Herb said
the president was probably weary of hearing both sides. In Duel for the
Dunes, by Kay Franklin and Norma Schaeffer, a different theory is presented:
The port was staunchly supported by most of the Indiana Democratic
delegation, so Kennedy couldn’t kill it. But other powerful Democrats, among
them Richard J. Daley, supported Douglas’ park effort. Supporting a national
park was one way for Kennedy to gain the support of liberals, intellectuals,
and youth, factions of the Democrat Party he had not yet won over.
Kennedy’s compromise, announced about a month before he was assassinated,
called for a Burns Waterway Harbor as well as an 11,700-acre dunes park.
On Oct. 27, 1965, Congress officially approved the new port. Two months
later, the Reads had their fifth and final child, Bill.
The following year, with her mother and other family members babysitting the
kids, Charlotte put her activism in higher gear by making her first trip to
Washington D.C. to lobby for the dunes. The Save the Duners went to all 435
congressional offices pleading their case.
On Oct. 14, 1966, Congress finally authorized a 6,539-acre Indiana Dunes
The new park contained none of the land originally envisioned, and
ecologically, the best dunes were gone. Further, the new park was about
5,000 acres less than what Kennedy promised. Herb blamed the reduced acreage
on Halleck. “There’s no honor among thieves,” Herb said.
Nevertheless, the park bill’s passage was nothing short of spectacular.
Everyone involved breathed a sigh of relief. “Everyone thought we could go
home,” Charlotte said.
The Fight Goes On
The Save the Dunes Council quickly learned that getting an authorization
bill passed for a new park was one thing, but getting the money for it was
another. They were told by Congressional staffers not to worry that there
was no money to buy the land. But by now, the Save the Dune members had
become much more politically astute.
“We knew if we didn’t worry, there’d be no land,” Herb said.
Herb recalled how Charlotte and several others then traveled to Washington,
D.C., “pounding the halls” of Congress and demanding funding for land
In addition to fighting for acquisition money, the Save the Dunes soon
learned about an expansion bill for Redwoods National Forest. And so began
the type of work that would consume the council for the next 30-plus years:
Fighting for bills to expand the authorized boundaries of the National
Lakeshore, slowly adding back the acreage originally promised to them by
The 1971 bill, for example, broadened the idea of what the dunes park should
include. Charlotte noted that up until then, there were no dune and swail in
Charlotte, who at one point worked for the National Park Service as a
part-time ranger, began working part-time for the Save the Dunes Council in
1974 and then became its executive director in 1976. Today, she is assistant
In addition to pushing for expansion bills, the Reads and the Save the Dunes
took on other battles: They fought big industry, such as when NIPSCO planned
a housing development on Crescent Dune; developers, such as when a big
amusement-type park was proposed in the park south of Dune Acres; and even
the National Lakeshore itself when the Park Service proposed overdeveloping
“It still shocks us when someone comes up with a bad idea,” Charlotte says.
Tom Anderson, who took over from Charlotte as executive director of the Save
the Dunes, said the council has been strengthened by Herb and Charlotte
Read. He said it’s rare to find one person so dedicated to a cause but that
it’s even rarer to find a couple devoted to the same cause.
“They’re models for more than just environmentalists. They’re models for
married couples,” he said.
National Lakeshore Superintendent Dale Engquist said the Reads may have
their own children, “but their biggest baby is this one -- the park.”
“I can’t think of two people who have been as dedicated to a cause for as
long as they have and have worked as doggedly hard as they do,” he said.
To celebrate their 50th, the Reads held a family gathering on Sept. 1 at
Marquette Park in a wing of the Aquatorium that Herb designed. All five of
their children, and their own children, attended.
Herb said he has an indescribable emotional feeling that the Save the Dunes
Council is celebrating its 50th anniversary the same year he’s celebrating
his 50th with Charlotte. “I think it’s more than coincidental,” he says.
As the Reads look forward to many more years of married life, they’re also
looking forward to another dunes expansion bill. The last bill, signed into
law by President George D. Bush in 1992, was such an ugly fight with
property rights proponents that some said it would be the last.
Don’t count on it.
Herb said that before he dies, he vows to work on a new dunes bill. As
Charlotte said, “we have a much more diverse park, but it’s still too
“Who knows what the future holds,” Herb said.