By MARK S. PORTER
for Montclair Local

Gray Russell is an activist in the literal sense. As Montclair’s sustainability officer, Russell methodically focuses on reducing energy consumption, protecting the town’s environment, and improving the residents’ quality of life within its 6.2 square miles. He’s a member of several local, county, regional, and statewide environmental and sustainability organizations, and he finds the time to assist with the local farmers’ market and, pre-pandemic, the airing of 100 environmental movies and documentaries.

“Half of it is helping the government be greener and smarter and more efficient,” Russell says. “The other half is public outreach and education.”

At the end of June, Russell will retire after 20 years of service to the township. Before he can sprawl on the lawn instead of heading to work in the Municipal Building, he’s being saluted by municipal and county officials, professors and people committed to bettering Montclair.

He notes that Montclair has often taken the statewide initiative with environmental programs. Jean Clark, who died in 2018 at the age of 95, initiated New Jersey’s first newspaper-and-glass recycling effort in Montclair in 1971. When Clark passed, Gray Russell wrote a remembrance of Clark in Montclair Local.

With his departure, Russell is certain that the local government and the townspeople will move forward with numerous programs he’s started and develop new ones.

Russell’s final day will be June 30. “I have some last projects that are dangling that I want to handle. I want to finish the projects before I’m gone.”

While he acknowledged the municipal government won’t immediately fill the sustainability-officer vacancy, Russell says, “They’re going to replace my position, which I’m very pleased with. They will find new blood and new ideas.”

The founder and chief executive of Montclair-based Northeast Earth Coalition, Jose German-Gomez has long connected with Russell.

“Gray has been a friend and ally for over 15 years,” German-Gomez says. “Gray has been the ‘green face’ of our township. Local environmental initiatives like composting, recycling, renewable energy and sustainability have been achieved thanks to Gray Russell’s work. He has been the liaison between the township, the Environmental Commission, Montclair State University and local environmental groups, including the Northeast Earth Coalition.”

Dedication to sustainability and the environment is the second of Russell’s two career commitments. In the decades before he focused on improving the environment, primarily in urban areas, Gray Russell recorded rock music.

Melodies of Montclair

“I’m Montclair through and through. I’m fourth-generation Montclair,” says Russell.

Montclair’s been the hometown for numerous musical artists. Russell graduated Montclair High School in the Class of 1970, along with several fellow students who became professional musicians. Among them are Al Anderson, a lead guitarist hired by Bob Marley for his band The Wailers who’s on several recordings, and Chuck Burgi, who’s played drums for many performers including Billy Joel, Hall & Oates, Enrique Iglesias, Meatloaf and Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow.

Gray knew them and other MHS performers, and music was a main focus in his life. After graduating from Montclair High, Russell attended Nasson College in Springvale, MA, and the Université de Caen in Normandy, France, and transferred to the University of New Hampshire’s Durham campus. He then enrolled in the Institute of Audio Research in New York City, and became an audio recording engineer at the Record Plant Studios in Manhattan.

There, he earned more than 50 album credits and worked on nearly 100 major-label recordings, receiving several RIAA-certified Platinum and Gold Records. From 1976 to 1990, Russell handled audio recordings by scores of rock, jazz and pop artists.

“It ranges from Miles Davis to Tiny Tim, and everybody in between,” Russell says.

Among the many other artists whose recordings Russell engineered or assisted are Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Queen, The Smithereens, Blondie, The Go-Gos, Richie Havens, Wayne Shorter, and Television, one of whose members was Richard Lloyd, a friend of Al Anderson’s and a brief enrollee at Montclair High School.

Through his studio work, Russell met the Brazilian football, or soccer, star Pelé.

“In Gray's office, there's a photo of him with Pelé who, I learned, is not only one of the greatest footballers of all time but is also a very talented singer and songwriter,” municipal Communications Director Katya Wowk notes. “The photo was taken in the studio where Gray once worked as a sound engineer. He was asked to assist Pelé with a recording.”

Russell speaks fondly when recalling Pelé: “He was with the NY Cosmos, owned by Warner Brothers. They used to play in Giants Stadium back in the '70s. Pelé was friends with a Brazilian musician whose son worked in my studio. My friend, the son, said he would help him. Two of them were reggae songs and two were pop songs. We did them at Atlantic Studios in Manhattan. It was a big thrill for me.”

“I love talking to Gray about football,” says Wowk. “He is passionate about the sport, having spent some time in the UK where he fell in love with ‘the beautiful game.’ He is a devout Arsenals F.C. fan, a ‘Gooner’ for the ‘Gunners,’ one might say, following Premier League matches every chance he gets. He's also been to five World Cup tournaments. I say that with great envy.”

Calling of the Green

From 1990 to 1993, Russell was a community organizer for the NJ Environmental Federation, now called Clean Water Action. “Thirty years ago,” Russell observes, “environment wasn’t really a career. It was a movement, an issue.”

From 1993 to 2000, Russell was the manager of the New York Botanical Garden’s Bronx Green-Up Compost Project, a waste-prevention and community outreach program that continues in 2021.

Twenty-nine years ago, long before he became Montclair’s environmental coordinator, Russell co-founded the Montclair Farmers’ Market, first proposing it to the Township Council. He now serves on the market’s Board of Trustees.

With an initiative and a grant from the local Partners for Health foundation, the market’s Double Value Coupon Program, or “Double Bucks,” provides additional funds to people on food support such as SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “We want to make sure anybody who wants it has access to fresh, healthy food,” says Russell.

In 2002, the then-Environmental Commission Chair James Sherman, along with Gray Russell and Merwin Kinkade, co-authored “The Sustainable Montclair Planning Guide,” offering policy proposals to the Montclair government.

Gray Russell, Sustainability Officer for the Township of Montclair, at The Northeast Earth Coalition's Fourth Annual Acting Locally for a More Sustainable World Conference. FILE PHOTO
Gray Russell, Sustainability Officer for the Township of Montclair, at The Northeast Earth Coalition's Fourth Annual Acting Locally for a More Sustainable World Conference. FILE PHOTO
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“It’s a menu of steps a town could take to be greener, smarter and save money,” explains Russell.

Montclair’s concept quickly became adopted statewide.

“Gray was one of the early leaders to help found Sustainable Jersey,” notes Randall E. Solomon, executive director of Sustainable Jersey and director of The Sustainability Institute at the College of New Jersey.

The organization certifies municipalities based on their compliance with numerous topics such as energy efficiency, green businesses, land use and transportation, transportation, waste management, community partnerships, and health focuses.

“Montclair was one of the early towns that piloted the early projects that have become standard. Whenever we had a pioneering project, Montclair was on the short list because of Gray,” Solomon says.

“Gray participated in a number of our task forces. He helped us throughout his career. It shows that if you’re persistent and knowledgeable and active, you can make a difference,” observes Solomon. “Gray made a difference.”

During his first 10 years working for the township, Russell wrote 100 columns of “Planet Montclair” for The Montclair Times. “I’m really proud of them,” he says. Russell’s writing aptitude is also reflected in municipal pamphlets he’s created and designed such as “The Handy Guide to Recycling” and the “A-Z Disposal Guide.”

He serves on the Board of Directors of the Association of New Jersey Recyclers, the advisory board for Bike & Walk Montclair, and the board of the Montclair-based Cornucopia Network of New Jersey.

Surprise, Gray, Here’s a Video

Word of Russell’s impending retirement impelled at least three local organizations to salute him. Based in Montclair State University, the PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies invited Russell to show up last Thursday as a speaker. Russell has been on the institute’s External Advisory Board since the program started in 2016. When he arrived, the faculty saluted him.

“They pranked me,” Russell acknowledges.

“We threw him off with the surprise,” says ISS Director Amy Tuininga. “He’s one of our absolute favorite speakers ... He has accomplished a lot in his 30-plus-year career as an environmental professional in a way that acts locally to contribute to a global impact. He is the resident expert in Montclair, leading us to be a ‘town of firsts’ for sustainability initiatives, thanks to his vision.”

The institute intends to plant a tree in Russell’s honor. “He gets to choose the species and where to plant it,” notes Tuininga.

“Gray has inspired so many people. He’s helped people find the path to sustainability,” she says. “He makes it easy to be green.”

On June 1, 2021, the Montclair Township Council issued a proclamation honoring Gray Russell. The document cites Russell’s leadership in the township receiving New Jersey’s first certification as a “Sustainable Jersey Community.”

The council proclamation cites Russell’s two decades of environmental and sustainable leadership, with Montclair repeatedly winning “first in New Jersey” status for programs such as creating electric vehicle charging stations, certification as a Sustainable Jersey Community and setting up a “bike depot,” in collaboration with the NJ Bike and Walk Coalition.

Russell, it notes, helped found the Montclair Farmers’ Market, now in its 29th year, and he organized the Green Film Series shown for years without charge in the Montclair Public Library, along with obtaining low-cost rain barrels and compost bins for residents.

Russell helped create the Energy Aggregation Program in 2018 to obtain renewable energy for Montclair and some nearby municipalities at a lower rate than the utility, and he’s planned a micro-grid project to limit power failures in town, obtaining a nearly $700,000 grant from the state Board of Public Utilities to initiate the grid. He’s also initiated steps for the municipal government to electrify its vehicles.

In 2005, the BPU awarded Montclair its first-ever municipal Clean Energy Leadership Award.

The United Kingdom in 2006 awarded Gray Russell with a Fellowship Grant from the British Council and its Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and he spent three months studying “Clean Efficient Energy” at the Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development at De Montfort University, Leicester, England.

Former Vice President and Nobel Laureate Al Gore in 2005 instituted The Climate Reality Project, and Gray Russell was in the first group of participants to be trained by Gore and a team of scientists to make public presentations on the global climate change crisis.

In 1997, Russell went to Haiti and trained people to compost to improve the soil and reduce waste. Russell spent a week near the Arctic Circle in 2005, working with a scientific research team from the University of Alberta, measuring the impacts of climate change on the permafrost around Hudson Bay.

In 2014, Gray went to the Brazilian Amazon basin, exploring Earth’s largest rain-forest. Two years ago, he spent a week recording climate change impacts on Acadia National Park’s coastal ecosystems.

Celebrating his actions, the Montclair Environmental Commission recently presented a “Retirement Tribute” video to Russell, featuring elected and appointed officials citing his accomplishments and praising him as a person.

On the video, Environmental Commissioner Imke Oster pegs Russell as “an anchor for Montclair” in his many environmental activities.

Oster’s fellow Commissioner Lyle Landon cites Russell’s numerous innovative programs, leading Montclair to be New Jersey’s first municipality with curbside recycling and for having more charging stations for electric vehicles than any other town of its size.

Noting  Russell’s work with Essex County, Senior Naturalist David Alexander of the Essex County Environmental Center thanks Russell “for setting an example and for providing all that leadership that so many of us follow, to be a steward of our local environment.”

Activities, Awareness

In his retirement, Gray Russell won’t be putting himself out to pasture. He’ll likely be studying pastures, meadows and forests, along with kayaking in lakes.

“It’s been 50 years of working. The summer of ’71 was my first real job. When I first retire, I want to relax. I want to read and do classes, such as a forest ecology course at the New York Botanical Garden.”

Gray says he and his wife, Linda Russell, “are beginning to make plans. We are thinking that initially we want to stay domestically, maybe a two- to three-month trip across the U.S.” Linda, a local Realtor, will continue with her profession.

Through his step-daughter, Sandie Gillespie, and her husband Doug Gillespie, Gray and Linda have two grandsons: Gordon, who will be a senior majoring in photography at Pratt Institute, and Michael, who will be a sophomore at Stevens Institute majoring in computer science.

In a thank-you post following the Environmental Commission’s tribute to him, Gray Russell sums up his upcoming years:

“I promise to enjoy my retirement, to keep it all green, and to keep rocking in the green world!”