Educator and environmental activist receives inaugural award

 MARQUETTE — Local educator and environmental activist Gail Griffith has been named the inaugural recipient of the Fred Rydholm Sisu Award by Save the Wild U.P. (SWUP), a grassroots nonprofit dedicated to protecting the U.P.’s unique culture and environment.

SWUP’s new award was unveiled last month at its Winter Gala, a sold-out event. The evening’s festivities included a silent auction featuring original work by dozens of U.P. artists, John Stauber, author of “Toxic Sludge is Good for You,” and the Terminal Orchestra, a local ensemble performing original compositions.

Presenting the award — an engraved wooden sauna ladle – was Fred Rydholm’s son, Daniel. “Gail Griffith, like my father, embodies values of service, unity and stewardship. As a scientist and educator, she has been a clear-eyed and passionate defender of our environment for decades.”

“We’ve created this award to honor the late Fred Rydholm, who wholly embodied Save the Wild U.P.’s environmental values, not to mention the Finnish — and Yooper —  term ‘sisu’ meaning perseverance, grit, and resilience,” said Alexandra Thebert, SWUP’s executive director.

Thebert, whose ancestors came to the Upper Peninsula from Finland, noted, “We chose a sauna ladle for the award because, in a group sauna, it’s a real responsibility to make the proper steam (löyly) by pouring water over those hot sauna stones. Gail Griffith certainly deserves this honor.”

Griffith retired as professor of Chemistry at Northern Michigan University in 1993. For over 25 years, she taught courses in environmental and biochemical toxicology, and developed curriculum in environmental and occupational hygiene. Griffith completed undergraduate work at Michigan Technological University, and earned her M.S. and Ph.D. from Michigan State University. She studied further at the University of California, Davis, and was an EPA Fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Later, she served on the Michigan Toxic Substances Control Commission, the K.I. Sawyer Restoration Advisory Board, the Marquette Board of Light and Power, and the Marquette County Solid Waste Management Authority. She has participated in the public oversight of mining of metallic sulfide ores in the U.P. since Kennecott first proposed the Eagle Project.

C. Fred Rydholm (1924-2009) was well known as a public school teacher, wilderness guide, three-term mayor of the City of Marquette, and author of “Superior Heartland: A Backwood History.” Earlier this year, Rydholm was posthumously awarded the 2013 Upper Peninsula Folklife Award from The Beaumier Center.  In his obituary, the Mining Journal wrote “Known and beloved as a storyteller, mentor and friend to countless numbers of followers and fans both regionally and internationally, Rydholm inspired and influenced the way many think and relate to their personal life story, their cultural identity and their relationship to the Upper Peninsula’s wilderness heritage.”  

The Fred Rydholm Sisu Award has been established to recognize the perseverance of dedicated community activists and environmental stewards. In selecting Griffith as the inaugural recipient, SWUP’s board members cited her numerous outstanding qualities. 

“Above all, Gail exemplifies virtues of hard work, perseverance, and unity,” said SWUP President Kathleen Heideman. 

“I’m so honored to receive this recognition from Save the Wild U.P.,” said Griffith, who has been active since the organization was founded. “I believe we all cherish the Upper Peninsula and want to safeguard it for many generations to come.”


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