Until the mid-1960s, Jan Smith's interest in the environment pretty much was confined to the gardening classes she took at the Morton Arboretum.
Then she picked up a copy of "Silent Spring," a book by Rachel Carson that is often credited with starting the modern environmental movement.
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About this seriesEarth Day every day. Think globally, act locally. The modern environmental movement has had a lot of catchphrases since it began with Earth Day on April 22, 1970, and a generation of adults has grown up hearing the messages and taking them to heart. With the arrival today of Earth Day 2012, we're concluding our six-part series to introduce you to some of our neighbors who have found ways to protect the planet and share their love of Mother Earth with others. Our series ends today with Carol Stream's Jan Smith, who began her involvement in the mid-1960s and is still going strong.
Carson's warnings about the use of DDT as a pesticide to kill mosquitoes spurred Smith to contact village leaders in Carol Stream. She began attending village board meetings to express her concerns.
"It didn't sound too healthy," Smith says now. "I thought, they were going to spray all of us."
That was just the starting point for Smith, who soon began pursuing her environmental activism in earnest. She knew what it meant to be "green" long before that word had cache.
Today, the 73-year-old Carol Stream resident heads a local chapter of the Cool Cities Coalition, a nationwide outgrowth of the Sierra Club that seeks local solutions to global warming by partnering with government officials, businesses and community groups.
There are more than 1,000 such "cool cities" nationwide -- including 57 in Illinois -- where officials have signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.
In 2005, Smith successfully lobbied then-village president Ross Ferraro to sign the agreement and has continued efforts to increase environmental awareness ever since.
"I believe as a citizen we should voice opinions that should make a better world," she said.
It hasn't always been easy for Smith to get her point across, and she admits she hasn't always been as respected as she is now.
Changes in attitudes occur over time, she says.
In the late '60s, she initially got flack for her outrage over DDT. But soon enough, the chemical was banned locally and nationally.
Not everyone originally liked the native prairie plants she planted at the park that now bears her name in Carol Stream, but people have come around, she says.
Before every household in town had convenient recycling bins, Smith and other members of the Carol Stream Woman's Club started a modest recycling drop-off spot in 1970 at Gary Avenue and Thunderbird Trail. Smith and others transported glass they collected all the way to the nearest recycling facility in Plainfield.
She's long been an advocate of organic gardening -- something once "ridiculed" by experts, but it's now the "'in thing," Smith said.
But she's upset about an attitude that she says hasn't changed much on one particular issue: global warming.
After a mild March with several days of summerlike temperatures in the 80s, Smith said, "People love it, but I'm scared."
Like Al Gore in his 2006 film "An Inconvenient Truth," Smith characterizes reactions to climate change with a metaphor of frogs in boiling pots of water: One frog is put in a boiling pot and immediately jumps out. In the other pot, a frog sits still while the heat is gradually turned on, but never jumps out and is boiled to death.
"I think we're frogs and it's getting hotter," Smith said.
Through her involvement with the Cool Cities Coalition, Smith has been the leading force for several local initiatives that aim to help the environment.
• In 2009, she brought to the attention of local officials a federal grant opportunity that resulted in the village getting $173,000 for energy-saving projects, including upgrades to the water treatment plant and installation of 10 LED streetlights.
• When Carol Stream Park District first considered building a new recreation center -- which is now under construction at Town Center -- she led a petition effort requesting officials to pursue LEED certification for energy-efficient design. The park board agreed.
• Smith and the local Cool Cities chapter encouraged the village to partner with the Citizens Utility Board and its Energy Saver program to allow residents to track home electricity savings online. As a result, CUB gave the village 500 compact fluorescent light bulbs to give to residents.
Those who know Smith best say she's able to get things done not through fiery rhetoric, but soft-spoken determination.
"She is incredibly effective. She has the perseverance of a bulldog," said Lonnie Morris of Lombard, the state chairman of the Cool Cities Coalition. "When she has an issue in mind, she goes all out for it. She does it in a civil and polite way in Carol Stream. What distinguishes her from other activists is she's able to create strong and personal relationships with local officials."
Morris joined Smith on a recent lobbying trip to state Rep. Franco Coladipietro's office. Morris says, "It was like he was welcoming family."
Suzanne Carlstedt, a member of the Cool Cities chapter in Carol Stream, called Smith "an ongoing force" in encouraging officials to be environmentally conscious when they're making decisions.
"She's always kind in her approach. She's persistent. She is kind of quiet how she goes about it. But she shows up," Carlstedt said.
Smith says her approach to talking to elected officials has changed since she made her first foray into environmental issues.
"You really want to have good relationships," Smith said. "You don't just want to say, 'We don't want DDT.' They'll say, 'You like mosquitoes.'"
Smith and her husband have lived in the same house near Armstrong Park since they moved there in 1963. Her garden is filled with flowers and growing vegetables, and fertilized with homemade compost from leaves and grass clippings. She also has two earthworm farms that she feeds with food scraps.
She spent 15 years as a part-time seasonal gardener for the park district, during which she became known for her love of native prairie plants. The park district dedicated a park in her honor, located at Kuhn and Lies roads. But when Smith retired in 1995, the park fell into disrepair and thistles and bind weed soon began to overtake the native grasses.
She made headlines after speaking out about it at park board meetings.
"That stirred me up. When you name something for someone, you should keep it up," she said.
The park district responded by hiring a consultant specializing in prairie plantings and by putting more staff resources into the park.
Still, maintaining it has required volunteers willing to take care of the specialty plants. Smith has led that effort, spending a couple of hours weeding there every week.
Carlstedt, who often helps at the park, noted Smith's level of dedication.
"The prairie planting beds she maintains -- it's not like a 'set it and forget it' kind of thing. It requires weeding and maintenance work," Carlstedt said. "I don't know who could be another Jan Smith."
In addition to Cool Cities, Smith is involved with the DuPage Organic Garden Club, which she founded 41 years ago on Earth Day, and serves on the board of the Greater DuPage Chapter of the Wild Ones, a nonprofit group dedicated to natural landscaping.
So why have such a commitment to environmental causes?
To Smith, it's personal.
"It has to do with my faith and seeing God in the creation. Part of my seeing God is in what God has created. What we do in my generation affects future generations."