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Obituary of Rachel W. Crandell: Rainforest Rachel, ecological warrior

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 10, 2009 - Rachel Wentworth Crandell, whose quest to save the rainforests was at once practical, literary and profoundly spiritual, died on Monday (Sept. 7, 2009), at Peace Haven Association in St. Louis. She was 65.

"Rachel Crandell was a luminous human being who had a spiritual quality that made it a pleasure to deal with her," said Peter Raven, president of the Missouri Botanical Garden. "She was a remarkable and effective human being whose strong religious beliefs and lovely sense of spirituality and commitment inspired us all."

Mrs. Crandell had been an environmentalist long before founding the Monteverde Conservation League, U.S. in 2002. Consequently, she proclaimed, "I am a rainforest advocate; thus, my name is Rainforest Rachel." She was determined to save the tropical rainforests, one child, one tree, one animal at a time. Mrs. Crandell subscribed to Irish statesman Edmund Burke's philosophy: "Nobody makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he could only do a little."

"My mother felt that the way we live our lives impacts our global environment; that the world is ours to steward and live in," said Jeremy Crandell, Mrs. Crandell's eldest child. "Her efforts were not doom and gloom, but to see what one person can do. She said we can despair or we can take action."

Mrs. Crandell, a Christian Scientist, said that she believed that life could be successfully lived by answering three questions.

Does it glorify God? Is it good for my family? Is it good for me?

And if the answer to the first question is "yes," the answers to the latter are irrelevant.

The Forever Forest

In 2001, immediately after retiring from a nearly two-decade teaching career, Mrs. Crandell contributed to "Six Inches to England: An Anthology of International Children's Stories." It was quickly followed in 2002 by "Hands of the Maya: Villagers at Work and Play." In 2008, she collaborated with a former colleague's daughter, Kristin Pratt-Serafini, on a children's book celebrating the 20th anniversary of work she had helped make possible, preservation of the Children's Eternal Rainforest. The book was "The Forever Forest: Kids Save a Tropical Treasure."

"I thought, 'How cool would it be to write the story of the children's rainforest'," Pratt-Serafini recalled. "Rachel came up with the plot and did the research; I wrote the narrative and did the illustrations. It was really inspiring to work with someone who cared that much about what she did; she was a very selfless lady."

Mrs. Crandell advised aspiring writers like Pratt-Serafini to let their hearts lead them, because it's how she chose to write.

"It was my love for the Maya people and their culture that inspired ... 'Hands of the Maya'," Mrs. Crandell wrote. "Only when we understand each other will we truly value each other."

Mrs. Crandell and her husband, Dwight, had been sending children from the Maya village primary school to high school in town. The proceeds from "Hands of the Maya" provided some of the much-needed scholarships. The first boy to graduate came back to the village to teach.

She also authored "Michiq, Daughter of the Andes," a photo-essay about the Quechua people, and "This Is the House that Graciliano Built," a rhyme about how indigenous people build their homes completely from the forest.

Girl Scout to Environmentalist

Mrs. Crandell was born Sept. 25, 1943, in Galveston, Texas, but grew up in and around San Antonio, Texas. She graduated from Alamo Heights High School in 1961, and received her Bachelor of Arts Degree from Principia College in 1965, after visiting the school during the national Girl Scout Convention in St. Louis as a high school senior, where she spoke to more than 10,000 Girl Scouts and their leaders. She would later earn a master of arts from Webster University in 1984, three years after moving with her husband and children to St. Louis.

Before she turned her full attention to saving the tropical rainforests, she raised three of their four children while her husband, Dwight, served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. Following his service, he earned a master's degree in museum administration and became a museum curator.

He and Mrs. Crandell set about reviving a family farm in Monrovia, Ind. There she ran a preschool, led a Girl Scout troop and helped reform the local school board.

In 1965, Mrs. Crandell worked at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and joined the Girl Council of the Nation's Capital a year later. She was a nursery school teacher in Monrovia, Ind., from 1972 to 1981.

In 1981, the Crandells moved to St. Louis. Dwight joined the St. Louis Museum of Natural History and later helped it merge with the McDonnell Planetarium and transition into the new St. Louis Science Center. Mrs. Crandell began teaching second grade at the Principia Lower School, where she taught with zeal for nearly 20 years.

Pratt-Serafini was a seventh-grader at The Principia when she met Mrs. Crandell. Two years later, she got her first opportunity to work with the second-grade teacher who was quickly becoming an environmental expert. She had begun to work with Eha Kerns, a Swedish teacher, to protect the rainforests in Costa Rica, learning about climate change and endangered species. She brought an environmental curriculum back to Principia.

"All grades started studying the rainforests," Pratt-Serafini said. "She inspired all of the students and she inspired me to write and illustrate a rainforest alphabet book for my mom's (Kathy Pratt) preschool class."

Giving Without Expectation

Upon retiring from Principia in 2001, Mrs. Crandell began devoting herself full-time to environmental efforts. She founded the Monteverde Conservation League, U.S. and began lecturing across the country and guiding trips to the tropics, especially in the mountaintop region of Monteverde in Costa Rica. Her love and respect for the culture of indigenous peoples led her to collect, translate and publish the oral history of the Emberá peoples of Panama. She also worked as an environmental coordinator for a bilingual school in Costa Rica and as an Earthkeeper trainer for children, as well as a public speaker and workshop presenter.

For her efforts, she was named National Firestone Eco-Educator of the Year in 1994 and received the Environmental Award from the Ladue Garden Club in 2001.

Mrs. Crandell was a lay reader and Sunday school teacher at First Church of Christ Scientist in Valley Park. She was a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, the Missouri Writers Guild and St. Louis Rainforest Advocates. She had served as board president of Wild Canid Survival and Research Center (Wolf Sanctuary) and was on the board of the Monteverde Conservation League.

In describing the purpose of her work, she wrote on her website:

"I hope this site will help people understand what is so important about tropical rainforests, what rainforests do for us, and how we can save them so they can continue to protect and provide for us. We are partners with the planet. We are all connected. Besides, the rainforests are just plain wonderful, chock full of surprises and intricacies we have yet to understand."

What we understand, said Raven, who became a Monteverde Conservation League, U.S. board member, is that "we shall miss her greatly."

Mrs. Crandell was preceded in death by her parents, Earl J. Wentworth and Margaret Stafford Wentworth; her husband of 43 years, Dwight Crandell, who died in February 2008, and her youngest child, Joshua Crandell.

In addition to her son Jeremy of Oakland, Calif., Mrs. Crandell is survived by her daughters, Abigail Crandell of Kirkwood and Joanna Crandell of St. Petersburg, Fla.; six grandchildren: Joseph Crandell, Columbia Crandell, Liana Crandell, Michael Jones, Kaylee Jones and Alexander Jones. She is also survived by a brother, Jeffrey (Karla) Wentworth of San Antonia, Texas, and a sister, Mary Marcia (Chuck) Mott of Austin, Texas.

A memorial service for Mrs. Crandell will be at 3 p.m. on Friday at Bopp Chapel, 10610 Manchester Road, in Kirkwood.

Memorials may be made to the Monteverde Conservation League, U.S. (mclus.org ), The Principia (principia.edu ), or The First Church of Christ, Scientist (tfccs.org ).

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.