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Marjorie Carr, "Lady of Rivers', dies at 82

Published Oct. 2, 2005

Marjorie Harris Carr, an honored defender of Florida's environment, has died at 82.

Mrs. Carr, noted for her devotion to the Ocklawaha River in Central Florida, died Friday at her home in Gainesville.

A former smoker, she died from emphysema, which she had suffered from since 1990, said her daughter, Mimi Carr of Gainesville.

"She was our lady of the rivers," said Charles Lee of the Florida Audubon Society. "Marjorie, more than anyone else focused the attention of Florida and the nation on river conservation."

Despite her poor health, she continued to fight until nearly the end of her life to free the Ocklawaha, a river that had been dammed as part of the Cross Florida Barge Canal project of the 1960s.

"Carr distinguished herself as a true giant in the environmental community," said Gov. Lawton Chiles. "Our state is a truly better place because of her work to protect and defend our precious natural resources."

Chiles has advocated naming the 110-mile Cross Florida Greenway, a park consisting of the governmental lands formerly dedicated to the canal, after Carr.

For three decades Mrs. Carr battled for green space and parks, and against barge canals. On Nov. 18, 1996, her struggles put her into the Florida Women's Hall of Fame.

The federal government's first female wildlife technician in 1936, she found her major cause some 30 years later. She and others founded the Florida Defenders of the Environment and challenged the Cross Florida Barge Canal, a mammoth public works endeavor. As part of the project, the once wild Ocklawaha River was dammed.

"Why fight for the Ocklawaha?" she once said. "The first time I went up the Ocklawaha, I thought it was dreamlike. It was a canopy river. It was spring-fed and swift.

"I was concerned about the environment worldwide. What could I do about the African plains? What could I do about India? How could I affect things in Alaska or the Grand Canyon? But here, by God, was a piece of Florida. A lovely natural area, right in my back yard, that was being threatened for no good reason."

In 1971, thanks in part to Florida Defenders' work against it, the Barge Canal was abandoned. Today, the land along the Ocklawaha is the centerpiece for the Cross Florida Greenway, one of Florida's most ambitious parks.

Still, 20 years after her victory, Mrs. Carr continued to fight to remove the Rodman Dam and let the river run free. The St. Johns River Water Management District in coming months will consider the application of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to restore the Ocklawaha River by tearing down Rodman Dam.

Her chief opponents were bass fishermen, led by state Sen. George Kirkpatrick, D-Gainesville. The fishermen like the reservoir that obliterates 16 miles of the Ocklawaha because it is full of trophy-size bass.

"Marjorie's life was a tremendous series of successes but the one thing she didn't live to see was the restoration of Ocklawaha River," said Lee.

"Clearly, Marjorie's passing will be a rallying cry to the environmental community to get the job finished that she had begun."

Blessed with a childhood in the paradise of an unspoiled Florida, she never lost her love for the wild.

Born in Boston, she moved to Bonita Springs in 1923. Her father, Charles Harris, was a retired Boston schoolteacher intent on raising oranges in his retirement.

"She was very New England but every inch a Floridian," her daughter, Mimi Carr, said.

A bequest of $500 from a maiden aunt allowed Mrs. Carr to begin her studies at the Florida State College for Women, now Florida State University.

When she graduated with a zoology degree in 1936, Florida was wild and verdant, an undiscovered frontier for scientists who prowled the landscape.

In those days, Mrs. Carr wrote in her forward to Ecosystems of Florida, "a graduate student could select a set of animals to work on and realize that he or she was the first to focus on that particular group in Florida."

In 1937, she met Archie Carr, who was to become world-renowned as a sea turtle researcher and author.

Married 50 years, they had five children. Archie died in 1987. Archie's work took him to Africa, Costa Rica, Honduras and other locales.

Two of the Carr children were born in Honduras. Four of the five have chosen conservation careers.

Lee said Mrs. Carr also had been active in campaigns to preserve other Florida rivers such as the Apalachicola, Suwannee and St. Johns.

Mrs. Carr's funeral is scheduled for Thursday at the First Presbyterian Church in Gainesville.

Memorial contributions may be made to Florida Defenders of the Environment, 4424 NW 13th St., Suite C8, Gainesville, FL 32609.

_ Times staff writers Craig Basse and Gregory Enns and Gainesville Sun reporter Doug Martin contributed to this report, which contains information from Times files.