WEST MILLGROVE, Ohio — As the red-haired, middle-aged woman moved toward the podium, a couple of John Deere skeptics leaning against the wall sneered. “Wait till you hear this nut job,” one of them sniped as she walked by.
Unflappable and emboldened by her passion and extensive knowledge of the subject matter, Teri Reinhart proceeded to lay out details and data to support her feeling that a proposed mega-dairy operation and its extensive manure lagoons had no place in this area, where threads of the Portage River collect water to send along to Lake Erie.
That turned out to be one of dozens of speeches she would give on the subject of CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. As for the comments from the folded-arms gallery at that township hall forum — she wore those like a badge of honor. If it took being labeled “crazy” to stop what she saw as a potentially destructive threat to the ground water supply and the lake, then Reinhart would put on the team jacket.
At the time, she had just retired after a long career at the Autolite Spark Plug plant in Fostoria, where she was also a UAW trustee. But retirement for Reinhart did not mean potluck lunches at the senior center, winters in Florida, or knitting quilts.
She immediately signed on with the Red Cross and volunteered to assist the victims of every crisis, from a lengthy stint in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, to those quick, late-night trips to find emergency shelter for a local family after a house fire.
When she got a whiff of a proposed nearly 1,000-head dairy off Cygnet Road, and within a mile or so of where she had lived for about 20 years, she first educated herself on the issue, then signed on with a number of conservation and environmental groups that had been watch-dogging the huge dairy operations around the Midwest.
This is where Reinhart’s already interesting life story got even more intriguing. This was an angler — she and her husband owned a hardtop Sportcraft for a while and practically lived on Lake Erie — and a hunter, and an outdoorsman, and a camo-wearing meat-eater.
She was now joining activist environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, and becoming very involved with its causes in the region. Reinhart also hooked up with the Lake Erie Waterkeeper group, and was all-in from the start. She left an immediate impression on its executive director, Sandy Bihn.
“She was incredibly active, persevering, smart, kind, funny, and very passionate about the CAFO issue,” Bihn said. “But she was also this paradox. She hunted, and she loved to eat meat, but yet she worked with a number of organizations where that was probably a real contradiction. I meet a lot of people, but I don’t think I ever met anyone quite like her.”
What Reinhart represented was an interesting new faction on the political map. Call it the “Green & Camouflage” party — hunters and anglers merging with ardent conservationists and environmentalists, and finding a surprisingly large chunk of common ground. It is an outdoors political harmonic convergence that makes the “strange bedfellows” adage about politics seem too soft.
We’ve seen it along Lake Erie, where duck hunters and birders have worked to protect the same large swath of habitat. Reinhart found no reason for there to be division between such groups.
Like every hunter and fisherman she knew, Reinhart was for clean water, she was for wildlife, for controlling pollution, for preserving habitat and for environmental safeguards. And if there was any rabble to be roused, she was the rabble-rouser you wanted on your side.
“With all of these very complex issues we face, you can’t know everything, but you learn to trust certain people,” Bihn said. “Teri educated herself on so many of these things, and she could give you chapter and verse on a lot of them. I relied on her, and I had a lot of respect for her.”
Keep in mind this was no yuppie or city slicker who decided to move to the country, and then harangued about the smell and the dust and the flies. She lived in the country for nearly two decades before the CAFOs came calling, and that’s when she decided it was time to draw a line in the sand, or the manure.
Reinhart wasn’t against farmers — she loved ‘em, and she married one. She just felt the necessary safeguards were not in place to guard the watershed from the massive amounts of waste such operations produce, and she spent the last years of her life spreading the word.
Her Red Cross work tapped into a lot of the same passion for the health and safety of regular folks.
“Teri could relate to anybody. She had such a great way of listening to people, and letting them tell their story,” said Diane Dixon, who oversees the volunteer force for the Greater Toledo Chapter. “She helped alleviate people’s anxiety. She was the perfect person to be the first one people would see after a disaster.”
When bone cancer moved in, it worked fast and furious, much like Reinhart. For a while it was a stalemate, and she had to give up some of the volunteer work and the CAFO fight and surrender her time to chemotherapy. For a lifelong Michigan fan to trust the doctors at the Ohio State James Cancer Hospital, that was a leap of faith.
When Reinhart died earlier this year, there was no funeral, because she wasn’t going out that way. There was more Joe Cocker and Ted Nugent filling the air than Amazing Grace. Her friends expected the next banquet in Heaven would include a couple pans of roast squirrel, venison back straps and fried rabbit with gravy.
And Reinhart would have the hunters and the Sierra Club-ers all at the same table, enjoying the meal and their shared causes, because that’s the way she did things.
“She would jump fences, just to talk to people. It is inspiring to all of us that do this kind of work to know that people like Teri are out there,” Bihn said. “We need her level of passion on these subjects.”
Dressed in her camo jacket and fighting for green causes, Teri Reinhart mattered. She found harmony where others only saw division.
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