Chesterton Tribune

Married into the dunes: A double 50th anniversary for Dunes defenders Herb and Charlotte Read

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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, were wed.

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 got married.

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 $1,730.

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 state park.

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 Central Dunes.

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 nation.

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 said.

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, Charlotte remembers.

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 vice versa.

“We convinced the Bureau of the Budget it was all phony economics,” Herb said.

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 National Lakeshore.

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 acquisition.

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 Kennedy.

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 the park.

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 director.

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 the dunes.

“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 small.”

“Who knows what the future holds,” Herb said.


Posted 9/6/2002