Friends and neighbors: environmentalist Pat Kenschaft
By GWEN OREL
In “Friends and Neighbors” we spotlight interesting Montclairites doing interesting things. Some of them you might have heard of, others you might not. Answers have been edited for space. Got someone you think we should write about? Drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pat Kenschaft’s name can often be seen in a letter to the editor. You might recognize her from the recent climate strike at Montclair High School: she and husband Fred Chichester, a researcher in the aerospace engineering and a math tutor, were there, with their sign, “Stop Climate Change,” cheering the kids on. Professor Emerita of mathematics at Montclair State University, Dr. Kenschaft has written many books and articles, including “Math Power: How to Help Your Child Love Math Even Though You Don’t.” She also writes about Environmental Mathematics, which is the application of mathematics to environmental issues. Kenschaft is secretary of the Cornucopia Network of New Jersey, which she helped start in 1983. She had two biological children with first husband Ken, which she raised with second husband Fred, with whom she fostered two more. Her garden on Gordonhurst Avenue is created with no machinery. Butterflies and bees hover over her zinnias and milkweed. In the backyard, she grows tomatoes, raspberries, peppers, collards, kale, squash, cucumbers, eggplants, Northern kiwi and more. The driveway is full of of Chichester’s eight cars. As neighbors walk by, they call “Hi, Pat.”
How long have you been gardening? I decided when I was 14 that my life would have two purposes. One was to be as happy as I could be and the other was to make other people as happy as I can. People that I’m with, and also this climate-change goal.
Why are you so passionate about the environment? What got me started: my mother Bertha Clark was one of the first Girl Scouts, in eastern Pennsylvania. Their big job was to go out camping. She became worried very early on about preserving the trees. When my brother was 7 and I was 4 his IQ was diagnosed in the low ’50s, that’s way below Down Syndrome. She and my father paid over a third of their gross income for his education. She organized and organized and in 1954 New Jersey passed first legislation in the country that all children must be educated at the public expense. Kenschaft was also an activist for the environment. My father was a pharmaceutical chemist and he became very concerned when I was very little about chemicals in the environment, so he became an active environmentalist too when I was a child. So I was raised to be an activist. Mother did a lot of public speaking. They did a lot of writing to editors, Newark News, Star-Ledger, it wasn’t just the Nutley Sun.
Tell me about the Cornucopia Society. Its goal is to promote local organic food. We
have done garden tours. We write letters to the editor, and have a newsletter. We are looking for younger people to help take it over. It’s important to eat local foods for two reasons. One, it takes time for food to travel, and if you eat local foods, it’s fresher. Two, the fossil fuels that are used in that transportation. Forty-five years ago I was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis and told I should go to bed and take disability and never try to get out of bed again. I’d try to take a walk and have to lie down on a neighbor’s front yard to get the energy to go home again. My mother was 9 and she said “Mother, you should get your exercise by gardening, so if you have to lie down, you’ll be in a safer place.” When my daughter was a teenager, I was raising all the family food for 6. Within a few years I was biking from here to Montclair State, and that’s three miles.
Fred, tell me about the cars. I think I got started when we got the house, in 1975. The first car I ever bought was a used car and it lasted nine years. I figured buying used cars was a better way to go than buying new cars. I drive them by turns, and I do choose cars for efficiency. What is my favorite car varies from day to day. I’m really very fond of the Camry wagon. The car in the garage is the oldest of my cars.
How did you learn to be such a gardener? I was born in 1940, so my earlier memories are World War II. Everybody had a Peace Garden.
Tell me about becoming a mathematician. When I was 5, my mother went to medical school for a year. “Why are you doing that,” said I, age 5. My father said, “We both want to be doctors, but she’s smarter than I am.” The school closed down. But the idea that he was crediting her with being smarter I think had an impact that it was all right for a girl to be as smart as she could. This liberated me to be in mathematics. My degrees are in mathematics, all three of them.
In those days girls were not to have sex out of marriage. I married at the end of sophomore year, at the age of 19 and three months and I was one of the older brides. Times have changed, and I approve.
What would you say to older people who’d like to garden but worry about their knees? I like Ruth Stout’s book “Gardening without Work, for the Busy, the Aged and the Indolent.” While the kids were growing up, I spent half an hour a day. See that stool? The hard part is getting up.
MEET THE NEIGHBOR
Age: 79 ½.
Season: Oh how can you pick one, I just enjoy life so much.
Hobby, other than gardening: Sudoku. Well, it’s math. It’s fun for mathematicians.
Beach, forest or mountains: I don’t travel very much. I love this property. I have enjoyed the beach.
Favorite vacation spot: Here. Or my daughter’s home.
What do you want for your birthday, which is when? March 25. I have everything I want. I want my husband to take me out to dinner.
Superpower: A lot of patience and tolerance of failure. That's important in both gardening and mathematics.
Favorite drink: Cran-raspberry juice.
Favorite dessert: I really like ice cream a lot.
Last TV show watched: “60 Minutes.”
Favorite flower: I love zinnias. I love the winter sedum.
I want to meet (alive or dead): [African American almanac author and naturalist] Benjamin Banneker.
Nobody knows: I’m pretty much of a loudmouth.
I said I’d never, but then I: get divorced, but then I did.