During his 80 years, most of it spent in Mount Kisco, Jim Gmelin touched the lives of countless people with his unbridled passion for the environment.
On Saturday, many of his friends and the people he worked with to make the village a better place gathered by Wallace Pond at Leonard Park to remember Gmelin’s tireless advocacy for the natural world and to honor the longtime volunteer through poignant and humorous tributes.
Gmelin died in March, but he left a lasting legacy that will be emulated for years.
“His strong advocacy for environmental preservation educated the village, the (Village) Board, the DPW, the Recreation Department, etc., on the benefits of preserving the natural environment and also how to do it,” said Mount Kisco Village Historian Harry McCartney.
In recognition of his work, a serviceberry was planted just behind the village’s Wall of Honor at Leonard Park. He is one of four people to be enshrined on the wall since it was unveiled a few years ago.
As part of his many contributions, Gmelin had pressed and convinced village officials to hire a professional naturalist to create a natural resource inventory so educated policy decisions could be made on environmental issues, McCartney said.
At various times he served on the Mount Kisco Conservation Advisory Council and Byram Lake Committee. He volunteered to serve on the board of Marsh Sanctuary and worked on the village’s historic nature trails. He also donated his time as a docent for the New York Botanical Gardens and enjoyed working with local students.
Fox Lane Middle School science teacher Christine Ledrich recalled that Gmelin years ago had reached out to the school to see if he could get teachers and students involved in annually restocking the Kisco River with brown trout, cleaning the water of debris and other projects. Ledrich said he was delighted to introduce the importance of environmental work to many of the youngsters.
On their last field trip in the spring of 2019, more than 300 trout were released into the river over three days. Last year, Ledrich said because schools were shutting down in March due to the pandemic, she was forced to bring the fish to the river alone.
“He worked with thousands of students and inspired them to care for the environment in our backyard,” she said. “He coordinated a clean-up of the Kisco River where students from my school volunteered on many Saturday mornings hauling 10 pounds of trash out of the water and nearby waterways where we release our trout.”
Gmelin’s love for the environment was his passion but not his vocation. Born in Mount Kisco, Gmelin, a devout Catholic who attended daily Mass and served as a lector at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Mount Kisco, attended St. Francis Elementary School, then Archbishop Stepinac High School before going on to Notre Dame. He also served in the Marines.
He would go to law school and started out as an assistant district attorney in Colorado, before returning to Westchester to briefly start his own law practice. He spent most of his career working in Surrogates Court in White Plains.
Former mayor Patricia Reilly wondered what Gmelin was doing working in courtrooms and offices for so long.
“How did a man that liked the environment so much sit on his rear end so much as a lawyer when his real love was to be out in the environment?” she asked.
Dan Gmelin, one of his two sons, and others told stories of how he kept his own beehive and would brush off multiple bee stings while caring for his collection.
Local attorney Dan Hollis said Gmelin was a tribute to his faith, family, community and country and never lacked energy.
“To me, Jim amazed me with his knowledge of local flora and fauna, and was someone who grew up in Mount Kisco with the historic information that he shared with us,” Hollis said in remarks that were read at Saturday’s tribute. “From the Botanical Garden to helping children raise and release trout, and the trail building and clearing as well as hiking with us, Jim was a giving presence. He knew so much, the fish and where to find them. He had lots of friends and he enjoyed gardening. What a guy.”
With Gmelin gone, whenever it comes to the local environment, the sentiment now among those who share the same concerns and passion is what would Jim do, said Planning Board member Ralph Vigliotti.
“I think it’s so much to Jim’s legacy that we think along that line,” Vigliotti said. “I thank Jim for all that he gave me.”
“We all miss Jim,” Reilly added. “We were better for knowing him.”