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Heritage Moments: Stanley Spisiak, LBJ and a bucket of Buffalo River sludge

Buffalo History Museum
Stanley Spisiak (bow tie) hosts Lyndon B. Johnson on a Coast Guard cutter in the Buffalo River Aug. 25, 1966. Looking on are Lady Bird Johnson, Mayor Frank A. Sedita (crouching between LBJ & Lady Bird) and Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller (kneeling at right).

It’s the early 1960s, and you’re summering at Crystal Beach. You walk across the sands to take a dip in the warm waves of Lake Erie. But before you get to the water, you’ve got to step gingerly through a dozen yards of dead fish, a solid mass of rotting flesh washed up on the sand amid swarms of flies, already stinking in the morning sun.

That’s the way it was along Lake Erie in those polluted days, when Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River would actually catch fire from the chemicals in it and the oily Buffalo River produced mutant fish poisoned by carcinogens. But in Western New York, one lone voice spoke out in defense of the waterways: a jeweler named Stanley Spisiak.

More on the day LBJ came to Buffalo, from Great Lakes Today.

Spisiak was an active conservationist since his boyhood days swimming at Woodlawn Beach. Fighting against dredging, dumping and the use of local waterways as general cesspools for industrial and municipal waste, he earned the nickname “Mr. Buffalo River” and became chairman of the Water Resources Committee of the New York State Conservation Council. His outspokenness also earned him enemies among some companies that dumped pollutants into the waterways — in 1953 he started carrying a pistol after being roughed up by two assailants following one of his speeches.  

But Spisiak persevered. In January 1966 the National Wildlife Federation named him its Conservationist of the Year. At the award ceremony in Washington he met Lady Bird Johnson, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s wife and an ardent conservationist herself. Spisiak told her about the Army Corps of Engineers’ practice of dumping sludge from filthy rivers like the Buffalo into Lake Erie, which was killing the lake. He invited her and LBJ to Buffalo to see for themselves.

Eight months later LBJ and the first lady arrived, and Spisiak took them on a tour of the harbor and the lake aboard the Coast Guard cutter Ojibwa. Spisiak himself later described the key moment of the tour.

“President Johnson was my guest for three and a half hours,” he said. “I showed him a bucket of sludge from the Buffalo River and gave him a big spoon to stir it with.” Mrs. Johnson recoiled from the smell; the president was disgusted. LBJ’s response minced no words: “Don’t worry,” Spisiak remembers him saying. “I’ll take care of it.”

Johnson had already committed to quick and decisive action to save the Great Lakes, particularly the shallowest, most vulnerable one, the one whose once-great commercial fishery was now ruined. “Lake Erie must be saved,” he told a large crowd in Niagara Square just before the harbor tour. “This great inland sea will sparkle again.”

Spisiak (right) and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in WNED’s short documentary “Stanley Spisiak: A Voice for the Water”.

Pioneering water conservationists like Spisiak were few and far between in the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s, when no one much minded if job-creating factories dumped contaminants into lakes, rivers and streams. But these conservationists’ contributions were immeasurable. Their efforts finally led to the rise of the environmental movement in the late ’60s, and to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. (Still in force, that federal environmental law controls the pollution of the nation’s waterways.)

Spisiak also inspired on a personal level. His great-niece, Jill Spisiak Jedlicka, followed in his footsteps to become the executive director of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, the internationally recognized organization that has spearheaded the cleanup of the Buffalo River. To anyone who remembers what the river was like in Stan Spisiak’s day, to see it alive today with kayakers, birds and aquatic life is nothing short of astonishing. Jedlicka is proud of her great-uncle (and, in fact, she plays Lady Bird Johnson in our dramatization). Spisiak in turn would be proud of her, and delighted at how the waters he loved so well have turned out.

Cast (in order of appearance):

Stanley Spisiak: Steve Abbott
Lady Bird Johnson: Jill Spisiak Jedlicka
Lyndon Baines Johnson: Mike Dugan
Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Omar Fetouh
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839), performed by Aaron Dai
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Special thanks to:

Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director
Brian Meyer, former WBFO news director
Dave Debo, WBFO news director
Dave Rosenthal, WBFO senior director, news and public affairs
Armin St. George, Crosswater Digital Media

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)