Sustainable Life • After typing pool, official now focused on climate change
In 1976, 20-year-old Marianne Fitzgerald decided to drop out of college and head to Oregon as her native New York state was sleeping under a blanket of snow and slipping into a recession.
At the time, Fitzgerald was motivated by what some would have considered a whimsical idealism, evidenced by her reaction to the book 'Ecotopia.'
Written by Ernest Callenbach and published in 1975, the novel painted a seductive picture of a sustainable community that became an environmental manifesto in subsequent years.
'It just inspired me that I wanted to do my part to protect the environment,' Fitzgerald says with a self-deprecating chuckle.
So after Fitzgerald arrived in Portland, she says, 'The first thing I did was join the Oregon Environmental Council, and the second thing I did was apply for every job at DEQ I could have qualified for.'
And that's how in 1977 Fitzgerald came to work at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality as a word processor, typing reports from a Dictaphone.
'All I wanted was a foot in the door,' she says.
What followed was a career of gathering people together to deal with environmental issues, from increasing recycling to reducing pollution to addressing global warming.
Three decades later, Fitzgerald, now 51, is retiring.
But not before she finishes a task with which she is charged: writing rules for a new mandatory greenhouse gas reporting system for a range of Oregon companies and industries that will be administered by the agency.
'She's not going to set her retirement date until she's done with that project,' says Stephanie Hallock, who retired from her position as director of the DEQ last fall. 'That's classic Marianne.'
A year after Fitzgerald was hired into the typing pool, she moved into an administrative position tracking the requirements of the federal Clean Air Act Amendment of 1977.
'We were the first ones to do transportation air quality issues,' Fitzgerald says.
At that time, she says, the agency's management was male-dominated.
'The women were clerks, admin, support staff, and the men did the real work,' she says.
Fitzgerald married her college boyfriend, had a baby, and, in 1982, graduated with a geography degree from Portland State University.
'I knew I couldn't get anywhere at DEQ without a college degree,' she says. 'My husband missed when they announced my name because he was out in the hall with a crying kid.'
Between the baby, the homework and the job, Fitzgerald had her hands full. Still, she says, 'it's OK to be busy. You can get a lot done.'
Fitzgerald fills many roles
While her two sons were young, Fitzgerald helped to invent a job-share program that the agency still offers to parents so they can work part time.
In the 1980s, she helped the agency implement Oregon's recycling bill, which passed in 1983 as the first in the nation to require garbage companies and local governments in cities with more than 4,000 people to provide curbside recycling.
She was instrumental in helping draft a groundbreaking bill that required businesses to develop toxics reduction plans.
Eventually Fitzgerald became a pollution prevention coordinator, procuring and administering grants from the Environmental Protection Agency.
'We did some great work with some of those grants,' she says.
For example, Fitzgerald spearheaded the Eco-Logical Business Program, which educates automotive shops on how to be more environmentally friendly and rewards participating businesses with a certification. The program has since extended to landscapers.
'She's really been an innovator,' Hallock says. 'She was one of the first people to do pollution prevention outreach.'
Such outreach became the focus of Fitzgerald's work organizing the annual Northwest Environmental Conference, which was geared to educate businesses on how to comply with environmental regulations.
John Ledger, vice president of Oregon Associated Industries, has worked the conference with Fitzgerald for more than a decade.
He credits Fitzgerald as the 'heart and soul' of the conference, saying she pores over every detail and brings out the best in the participants.
'She has a very soft approach, but she's very strong beneath it,' Ledger says.
Battle moves to new front
Despite her reputation, Fitzgerald almost lost her job in 2003, when the agency was facing a severe budget crisis.
After a range of nonpersonnel cutbacks, Fitzgerald - and everyone else at the DEQ - was able to stay. She became air quality manager, focusing on ozone pollution.
But, now she is fully engaged in the issue of climate change. The agency has been developing a system for utilities and industrial facilities that will be mandated to report their greenhouse gas emissions.
Fitzgerald has been a facilitator of the process and is writing the rules that will be subject to public input in the spring.
That writing takes place in her 11th-floor cubicle overlooking Pioneer Courthouse Square, amid piles of files and a collection of snapshots of family and friends - and the family dog, Kimberly.
While Fitzgerald has spent a lot of time working with the business community, she wishes the DEQ had the resources to do more outreach and education.
'People see a smokestack and think that that is the cause of all the pollution,' she says.
But paint and coatings are the biggest source of volatile organic compounds, a major pollutant. Fitzgerald believes that by educating people about less toxic options, from house paint to deck sealant, would substantially reduce air pollution.
'It all boils down to behavior,' she says.
Her environmental work, she says, will continue after her retirement, which she's determined to pull off by summer.
'I'd just like to enjoy Oregon,' she says with a shrug. 'I want to go hiking. I want to go camping. Travel around.'
But it seems unlikely that she'll be able to rest for long. She says she will continue her volunteer efforts on transportation issues in her neighborhood in Southwest Portland.
'I have a long future ahead of me,' Fitzgerald says. 'There's a lot I can do.'