Since 2010, I have brought eighth-grade students to Washington, D.C., over April vacation, and most of the itinerary includes the typical sites — the Capitol Building, the Smithsonian and the Lincoln Memorial, to name a few.
Of course, we also visit Arlington National Cemetery for a guided tour, but we also participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers to honor the memory of Capt. John Ogonowski, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War and lost his life on Sept. 11, 2001.
This year, we participated in the wreath-laying ceremony on Tuesday, April 18, just four days before the 47th annual Earth Day. Earth Day originated in 1970, when U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin wanted to make people across the nation aware of the dangers facing the environment. He was horrified by the effects of the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., among other events, and felt he could mobilize the nation around environmental awareness and protection.
With the help of U.S. Rep. Pete McCloskey and Harvard student Denis Hayes, Sen. Gaylord organized the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. While it is undoubtedly fitting to honor Capt. Ogonowski for his military service, he also worked tirelessly as a land preservationist and conservationist. I think he would have been most pleased to know he was being remembered just days before Earth Day.
Born to Alexander and Theresa Ogonowski on Feb. 24, 1951, John Alexander Ogonowski was a fourth-generation farmer. The Ogonowski family, Polish immigrants, settled in Dracut around the turn of the 20th century.
However, long before Capt. Ogonowski was killed on Sept. 11, he had built a reputation as a well-respected resident of Dracut and a leader in land preservation and agriculture. After the 85-acre Dunlap property had been protected on Marsh Hill Road, Ogonowski moved forward to acquire and preserve neighboring land owned by Textron. Ogonowski hoped to fund the purchase of the land with the Massachusetts Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program.
He would still need $702,000 from the town. It went before Town Meeting on June 6, 1988, and was approved without opposition, due to the support of Town Manager Dennis Piendak and the Board of Selectmen, and the hard work of Ogonowski. What is now known as White Gate Farm would be protected.
In addition, Ogonowski was a longtime member of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation and was deeply involved in the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project (New Entry), a partnership between Community Teamwork Inc., and the Tufts University Freidman School of Nutrition. New Entry, which helps farmers to establish and grow their businesses, provided technical assistance to Cambodian immigrants who were farming on the land.
Ogonowski rented 12 acres of his farm to seven families, and worked with them as their mentor farmer. He immersed himself in the project, and it was highly successful. He then went on to help form the Dracut Land Trust to protect a 33-acre parcel on Broadway Road and Jones Avenue from development.
After his death, members of Ogonowski’s family asked then-U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan to help obtain funding to save that land. With the support of Sen. Edward Kennedy, the remaining $760,000 needed to purchase the parcel was secured. The land is managed through the Dracut Land Trust.
As Ogonowski often said, “When you plant a building on a field, it’s the last crop that will grow there.”