Alice J.W. 'Ajax' Eastman, outspoken environmental activist who influenced Maryland resource preservation, dies

Alice J.W. “Ajax” Eastman, an outspoken advocate for Maryland environmental issues who was dubbed “everybody’s environmental conscience,” died Friday from complications of pneumonia at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center. The Cockeysville resident was 84.

“Ajax was a dynamo and a tireless champion for Maryland conservation and the environment,” said John R. Griffin, who served from 2007 to 2013 as secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources.

“She was such an outdoor person and one of those people I thought I would be with until she was in her 90s,” said Tom Horton, who covered the environment for The Baltimore Sun from the 1970s until 2006 and now teaches environmental studies at Salisbury State University.

“She was always a good source and offered good counsel,” said Mr. Horton, a Salisbury resident. “Ajax and her buddies were mentors to me.”

Fran Flanigan, a Pinehurst neighbor who was also an environmental activist, got to know Mrs. Eastman in the 1970s when they attended an environmental festival in the Inner Harbor before Harborplace was built.

“She was one of the people who led a march from Baltimore to Western Maryland when we were trying to get a statewide bottle return bill in place before anyone else was doing it,” she said. “She was a lady who put her money and time where her mouth was. She just did things.”

Mrs. Eastman’s mantra was “greener, cleaner” laws, and she worked to make them a reality.

Timothy B. Wheeler, former environmental reporter for The Sun who now writes for the Bay Journal, called Ms. Eastman “a tireless advocate for the environment and for preserving Maryland’s natural resources.”

“I recall her haunting the State House to press her causes, sitting quietly in legislative hearings knitting while while she listened to testimony or waited herself to testify,” Mr. Wheeler wrote in an email.

Alice June Waterman was born and raised in Johnstown, Pa., the daughter of Frederick Walters Waterman Jr., a mechanical engineer, and Elizabeth Margaret Waters Waterman.

She was a graduate of the Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Mass., and graduated in 1955 with a degree in art history from the Connecticut College for Women in New London.

She embraced the outdoors. The forests and mountains of Maine had a lasting influence on her life.

She picked up the nickname “Ajax” when she was 6 at a camp in Maine. The smallest camper, she was called “Ajax the Mighty,” after the Greek mythological character. It stuck.

In 1956, she married Thomas B. Eastman, and they spent four years in Charlottesville while he obtained a law degree from the University of Virginia Law School.

They came to Baltimore in 1960 when he joined the law firm of Ober, Kaler, Grimes and Shriver, and they later settled into a home on Lake Avenue, where they lived for 48 years. They moved to Broadmead two years ago.

The couple enjoyed hiking, kayaking and spending time outdoors — pursuits that fueled and informed her environmental interests.

“You can’t defend what you don’t know,” she was fond of saying.

In 1970, Mrs. Eastman represented The Junior League at formative meetings of the first modern statewide environmental organization, which came to be known as the Maryland Conservation Council. She was a founding member along with other like-minded women.

In 1975, she was also a founding member of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, “part of the national network that was beginning to test its political muscle in the direct election (or defeat) of targeted candidates,” reported The Baltimore Sun in 2001.

The following year she began the first of six terms as Maryland Conservation Council president, and for 18 years was editor of The Conservation Report, its legislative newspaper that served as a source for environmentalists and reporters.

One of Mrs. Eastman’s and the council’s first crusades was the push in 1971 for a returnable, mandatory-deposit beverage container law, which came to be known as “Return to the Returnables.” It would take a dozen years to come to fruition as a broader statewide recycling law.

“From the coal mines of Western Maryland to the barrier islands of the Atlantic, she found myriad environmental challenges to be met in the General Assembly, the county zoning boards and the bureaucratic labyrinths of state agencies,” observed The Sun in a 2001 editorial.

“Knitting needles aside, [she] could mix it up with the best of them,” Mr. Horton wrote in a 1998 article about Mr. Eastman. “I always liked that term [she] reserved for certain, corporately hired scientific experts: ‘biostitutes.’”

“Ajax’s criticisms were always well-intended,” said Mr. Griffin, who lives in Annapolis. “Years ago she gave me a children’s book, ‘It’s Up to You, Griffin,’ and I cherish that book. What a woman!”

An unpaid volunteer, Mrs. Eastman often devoted 60 to 80 hours a week working on her various causes, Mr. Horton said.

Beginning in 1988, she and the late Elizabeth K. “Beth” Hartline chaired the conservation council’s Maryland Wildlands Committee. They led a campaign to keep more of the state’s natural areas free from development, vehicles and active resource management.

In 1996, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the legislature agreed to triple Maryland’s wildlands to about 40,000 acres. In honor of the two women who made it possible, an area of 1,100 acres along the Gunpowder River near Hereford was renamed the Hartline-Eastman Wildland.

“Wildlands hold the tapestries and mosaics of our rich natural heritage, “ Mrs. Eastman told the Sun in 2001. “They are vital to our understanding of the future. They hold genetic information that we should no more destroy than the Gutenberg Bible.”

“You talk about religions,” Mrs. Eastman told the Sun in 2013. “People like cathedrals — I love wildlands. They lift my spirits.”

It was Governor Glendening who called Mrs. Eastman “everybody’s environmental conscience” when, in 1999, she was commissioned an honorary Admiral of the Chesapeake Bay.

Her activism was far-ranging. She was a member of the Baltimore Area Transportation Coalition, the Baltimore Environmental Voters Alliance, Maryland Wetlands Committee, the Maryland Environmental Trust and the Committee to Preserve Assateague.

She and her husband, who provided pro bono legal work for many of her causes, played a major role in the Coalition to Preserve Black Marsh, to spare the woodlands area of North Point State Park from development.

She was a prolific writer to newspapers on environmental matters.

She and her husband enjoyed collecting memorabilia from India, Nepal and Tibet.

“Ajax was the classic doer. She was not one to reflect or ponder,” Mr. Horton said. “She did things, and she remained actively engaged until the end of her life.”

Plans for funeral services, to be held at Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church, are incomplete.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by four sons, Timothy W. Eastman of Idlewylde, Andrew D. Eastman of Centreville, Thomas B. “Todd” Eastman Jr. of Putney, Vt., and Nicholson J. Eastman of Alexandria, Va.; and four grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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