LEWISTON – Environmentalist, writer, re-enactor, teacher, father – Lewiston resident Timothy P. Henderson, 66, wears many hats.
He grew up in the Village of Lewiston and has been an outspoken advocate for the environment for the past 30 years. He was recently awarded the Residents for Responsible Government’s prestigious Joan Gipp Award for his efforts as an activist and longtime leader of Residents Organized for Lewiston’s Environment.
Henderson is also a well-known figure in the community, often seen in his black top hat in his “alter ego” of Josiah Tryon, a historical figure in Lewiston who led slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Henderson preserves the memories of Tryon and other notables as the author of the popular Marble Orchard program, which brings the past to life through re-enactments. Henderson and his wife, Rebecca, have one grown daughter, Kristen. Their son, Ryan, was killed at age 35 in a crash with an empty waste-hauling truck in 2011.
You received the Joan Gipp Environmental Activist Award. Did you organize ROLE, Residents Organized for Lewiston’s Environment?
I was an early member and then within a few years of joining the organization, I became president. Actually, this was back in the 1980s.
How did you first get started?
One of the reasons I did get involved is that I saw Lewiston’s – and this pun is intended – Lewiston’s expanding waste line happening. People were complaining about the truck traffic, and the supervisor at the time said there was nothing they could do about, and he just laughed about it and told people to go home. The next month they came back about 25 strong, and he wasn’t laughing anymore. Then ROLE was formed. The supervisor, Jim Lombardi, lost the election. The headline after the election said the supervisor “Lost by a Landfill.”
After this, you continued to fight?
The incinerators became an issue. The DEC was actually pushing for the siting of two mega-hazardous waste incinerators on CWM property, less than a mile from the school. Incinerators have been referred to as landfills in the sky. They burn 24/7 and use the hazardous waste as fuel. We thought this would be the nail in the coffin.
Tell me how ROLE has changed since it was formed.
It is now known as Residents for Responsible Government. ROLE was located in Lewiston, and when CWM proposed their expansion, mainly in Porter, we felt it would be good to have a group centered in Porter
I know your son, Ryan, was killed in a crash with a truck that was leaving CWM.
My family has been affected by the waste industry as hard as anyone. I was on the traffic committee, and I do have knowledge of other accidents. There’s been numerous truck turnovers. The odds are there – the more trucks there are. Some of these trucks weigh up to 80,000 pounds. Someone in a car doesn’t stand a chance. My son, Ryan, was killed two years ago. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss him. Ironically, it was a truck that doubled back so it wouldn’t have to go by the school that hit him.
Where are you now with CWM?
We’ve never been closer to shutting it down as we are right now. Without an expansion, CWM will close next year, and with their closing, the trucks will stop. To me, that’s totally worth fighting for, and it would give our community a fresh start. Our community has for far too long been the dumping ground for the entire East Coast. There are over 8 million tons of carcinogens buried at CWM, less than a mile from our school.
You also wear a different hat to bring tourism to the area. Tell me about the Marble Orchard.
The village was holding a 175th anniversary in 1993, and they asked the arts council to do something in the cemetery. I wrote a play for the 175th birthday. Six hundred people showed up our first year. And it kind of took off after that.
We had a different theme each year for the Marble Orchard. We’ve had a wedding, a funeral using an actual casket from those days. We featured, of course the Underground Railroad. I think over the years we’ve had close to 75 characters. What’s really neat is that some of the descendants of these people have come for shows. That puts extra pressure on us.
Your role, your alter ego, in the Marble Orchard has been Josiah Tryon. Who was he?
Josiah Tryon was a humble tailor by day and changed into his superhero outfit at night. He rowed the freedom-seeking souls to Canada. He was deeply religious. He chose to follow a higher law than the law of the land, which made harboring fugitive slaves a crime. He broke the law as a local conductor on the Underground Railroad.
I heard you and your alter ego have been memorialized in Lewiston’s Freedom Crossing Monument, a life-sized monument of the Underground Railroad.
Well, there are no photographs of Josiah Tryon from the 1860s, and I have been portraying him for almost 20 years, so when the artist, Susan Geissler, asked if she could use my face as the model – I was honored, but technically it is not me. (He laughs.) If you asked my dad which of his children would have been memorialized in bronze – I would have been his last choice.
Do you live in the past?
I believe in living for the moment. But I also believe if you live right that history will take care of itself. Our actions that we take now kind of set the stage for the future. The dreams for a future carry more promise that the memories of the past. Our past is worth celebrating, too.
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