A family fortune not squandered

Every spring, Joan K. Davidson gives a wonderful Shad Party at Midwood, her fabulous home on the Hudson River in Germantown, Columbia County. It is a splendid mansion whose proportions remind me of a similar institution at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. There is no more gorgeous view of the river in New York state than the view from Midwood. That’s entirely appropriate for a woman who served with distinction as the commissioner of parks in Mario Cuomo’s administration and whose environmental influence really knows no bounds.

Davidson got her start under the tutelage of her father who made Welch’s grape juice the household word that it is today. In addition to his entrepreneurial instincts, the father had roots in the most progressive traditions of American politics. His daughter carried on the tradition of giving back to society in the manner laid out by her father. Unlike others who squander great wealth, Joan Davidson has become a committed environmentalist, dedicated to helping people make the right environmental choices and cleaning up the planet we have plundered. Not only has Davidson, now in her eighties, written beautifully about the Hudson but she has supported a myriad causes that work tirelessly to improve upon the devastation that we have perpetrated on the earth.

Davidson’s father established a foundation to help make things better for the world. He ran it for years and then, while he was still very much alive, he asked Joan to take over the J.M. Kaplan Fund. She did so with tenacity and foresight until she turned it over to her son, Peter, while she was still very much a force on the scene. When that transition happened, Davidson carried on her work with a smaller project, Furthermore, a foundation housed in Hudson, Columbia County that awards grants in publishing. Most of the people at the annual Shad Party have been touched by the Davidson generosity in one way or another. I know that is true of the public radio stations I run, where Davidson supported environmental programming that was syndicated throughout the United States.

It seems as if the entire environmental community turns out to salute Joan Davidson’s extraordinary work. People don’t go to her party — the environmental party of the year — because they have to but because they want to. They come by car from north and south, from Washington, D.C. and from New York City and from the Northeast where J.M. Kaplan and Furthermore have done so much of their good work. Some take the train and come by taxi from the nearby Hudson Amtrak station.

Different environmental groups pitch in. Some make the shad (now salmon while the shad are allowed to replenish). The food is far from fancy but it is always great as the attendees feast on frankfurters and sauerkraut and Asian noodles in little cups. Inhibitions and Pritikin-type diets are thrown to the wind as the party goers are allowed to return to their most cherished roots of eating the way they used to. What a treat.

There is a short series of speeches, usually featuring the words of Congressman Maurice Hinchey, absent this year, who Davidson describes as a hero of the environment “and other progressive causes.” Davidson is one smart lady as she continues to invite an occasional Republican, this year a brilliant young Republican, Assemblyman Marc Molinaro, who is running for Dutchess County executive. His speech made it clear that there are still some Republicans who are committed to clean air and water. Davidson must certainly be thinking of other right minded Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt, who were environmental heroes.

Many of those at the annual Shad Party are getting on in years now but it is a testimonial to Davidson that she keeps her eye out to the comers, the people who will make a difference in the state and country’s environmental future. Of course, the annual party provides the opportunity for these people to find each other and talk of ways to make things better. I would bet that many of the good things that have happened in the environmental community have been hatched at this annual party on the Hudson.

The party is always a living testimonial to a great lady who has done an awful lot of good.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 5/16/2011

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