Louis Fletcher Ismay

Louis Fletcher Ismay with Deb Riitano.

Louis Fletcher Ismay, an educator, lifelong advocate for social justice, champion of environmental causes, and one of the oldest grassroots activists in New York’s Capital Region, died Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany. He was 96.
The cause of death was congestive heart failure.

A pioneer in the conservation movement, Mr. Ismay influenced generations of students as a professor in the State University of New York in Albany’s Environmental Studies Department who affectionately knew him as Lou.

“You have to work for justice or you will never know peace,” Mr. Ismay said as he accepted a 2019 lifetime honor from the New York Office for the Aging. “Do something useful every day. 

“Young people need to get involved and pay attention to a disintegrating world, literally and figuratively. They need to act for change so democracy can continue in the manner the forefounders had in mind,” he said.

Mr. Ismay’s push for the causes he believed in did not diminish his humanity.

“Lou was just a very sweet and warm and generous person,” said his nephew John Ismay.

“He was not someone who did any self-promotion; he encouraged others,” said a former student, Lynne Jackson, now an environmental activist in her own right.

Mr. Ismay was born in Bronxville, New York on Feb. 25, 1925. His parents, Louis and Julia (née Keringer) Ismay, immigrated to the United States from Austria-Hungary in the early 1900s and were ethnically Hungarian.

Louis Ismay Sr. was Jewish and emigrated from a town called Ungvar that is now known as Uzhhorod in Ukraine, and arrived in the United States as Loyosh Israelovitch at age 12 along with his older brother, Herman. His mother was Catholic and came from the village of Rácalmás near Budapest. 

John Ismay, Mr. Ismay’s nephew, said, “I learned so much about family through Lou. The only way we know what our last name used to be is because Lou tracked down a long-lost cousin.” That cousin’s entire family was wiped out in the Holcaust. Her mother and grandmother were killed immediately in the first concentration camp they were sent to; as a young girl, she was liberated from Auschwitz by the Allies.

“It was like filling a hole we never thought would be filled ...,” said John Ismay. “My dad’s dad, Lou’s dad, never spoke about it … Lou filled this gaping hole in our family history; that was a tremendous gift for everybody.”

Louis Ismay and his younger brother, Arthur, were raised in Tuckahoe, New York. Both brothers were Eagle Scouts; Louis Ismay advocated for John and his brothers, Peter and David Ismay, to become Eagle Scouts, too — and they did.

“He had such respect for the Earth,” said John Ismay. He recalled how once, when he was a kid, he used the word “dirt” and his uncle told him he should use “soil” instead because it is more respectful.

In 1943, Louis Ismay was drafted and served as an Army engineer, seeing combat in Western Europe. He was reactivated for duty in the early 1950s and left the service as a sergeant first class in 1956.

“When he came home from the war, he dedicated himself to peace and nonviolence, to secure human rights for everybody,” said his nephew. “He really believed in these things.”

Mr. Ismay graduated from the Teachers College at Columbia University with a master of arts degree in philosophy and social science.

A 1949 marriage to Elizabeth Kroll of Cortland, New York ended in divorce in 1957. In 1959, he married Eleanor Ricker of Guilderland, divorcing in 1972.

Despite being a veteran, or perhaps because of it, Mr. Ismay was a longtime member of Veterans for Peace.

“Lou walked in our two parades every year,” said John Amidon who heads the Albany chapter of Veterans for Peace.

Mr. Ismay’s protection of the environment merged with his interests in promoting peace since the military does much to destroy the Earth’s climate, Amidon said.

“He worked to educate people and make people aware of injustice,” said Mr. Amidon.

Mr. Ismay was also a longstanding member and former president of the Interfaith Alliance, a multi-faith organization dedicated to protecting the integrity of religion and democracy.

The group met monthly “to keep dialog between different faith groups going,” said Mr. Amidon, also a member, and once held a peace conference at the Madison Theater in Albany.

Deb Riitano, who now chairs the Interfaith Alliance, said she adored Mr. Ismay. “He was kind, he was gentle, he was devoted to peace and justice. He was devoted to democracy,” she said.

A decade ago, when the Interfaith Alliance presented Mr. Ismay with an award, he gave a speech in which he said that environmentalists and scientists were on the first terrorist watch; when they met, they almost had to shut the blinds, Ms. Riitano said.

“He knocked everybody off their chairs … Nobody had thought of that,” she said.

Ms. Riitano described Mr. Ismay as “a great mentor.” She went on, “To say he was an old hippie wouldn’t cover it; I’m an old hippie.”

Describing Mr. Ismay’s approach to problems, she said, “He didn’t want a win-lose situation. He wanted win-win for everyone. Not that he’d bend and bend and bend. He wanted what was right … He saw answers we might not have seen. He made the table bigger to fit more people at the table.”

Mr. Ismay was thoughtful and energetic in his problem-solving. “He never lost that sense of inquiry, that power to take in what was happening. He avoided hasty decisions but at any age, he was willing to take a risk,” said Ms. Riitano. “He was a big liberal — that we loved most about him.”

In his last years, Ms. Riitano said, “His body began to fail him — betray him — but his mind never did …. He just always displayed grace and style. His humanity was big.”

Ms. Riitano works as the commissioner of the Albany County Department for the Aging. “We made Lou the Senior of the Year,” she said. The designation, she said, recognized his voluminous volunteer work.

His vocation had merged in many ways with his avocation — caring for the environment. In 1970, Mr. Ismay was selected to be the coordinator of the Environmental Forum at the State University of New York in Albany.

“As a professor, Lou Ismay was absolutely amazing,” said Ms. Jackson, one of his students in the 1970s.

She warmly recalled the Wednesday night forum gatherings held in Ed Cowley’s art studio at the university. “We used to joke and say, ‘Fixing the environment is more of an art than science.’”

Mr. Ismay invited a wide range of speakers to the forum, from state wildlife pathologist Ward Stone to national reformer Ralph Nader. Ms. Jackson described the way Mr. Ismay would fashion a file folder into a tent-like structure and carefully letter each speaker’s name on the folder as a nameplate.

Then, each of the tents bearing names were hung from the ceiling of the art studio.

“His office was open 24 hours a day; things were loser back then,” said Ms. Jackson. “We just hung out there all the time. We did projects and we went on adventures to the pine bush from that office.”

Some adventures were more structured and far-flung.

In 1973 and 1974, she recalled, Mr. Ismay secured a 40-foot houseboat and took a dozen of his students on the Mohawk River to conduct an environmental survey. Ms. Jackson used a device to read and record particulate matter in the air. Another student analyzed the water. A third student took photographs of historic buildings and aqueducts.

“He knew all these people. They’d show up at the boat. The scientists would teach us,” recalled Ms. Jackson.

One of her most vivid memories is of a February 1978 meeting at the old Larkin restaurant in Albany where Lou Ismay and students concerned about the environment gathered in the midst of “a huge, huge snowstorm” before a city planning board hearing involving the globally rare pine bush.

“There was no internet then,” recalled Ms. Jackson. “We all walked to the Albany Public Library where the hearing was held. The hearing was adjourned to a private bank boardroom. The public was not invited. We were so mad, we started Save the Pine Bush.”

The volunteer not-for-profit watchdog group persits to this day in protecting the pine barrens from development, with Ms. Jackson as its spokeswoman.

She named other of Mr. Ismay’s students who went on to pursue careers in environmentalism at the state and federal levels.

She said of Mr. Ismay. “He was an idea person who encouraged people to pursue what they wanted in terms of environmental issues.”

Ms. Jackson went on, “He stayed in touch with many, many of us .… He always had a million ideas and always encouraged people to think about all kinds of different things.” At the time of his death, she said, “He still had ideas and projects and things to do. He was not done.”

Ms. Jackson said this week that she is “still in shock” over Mr. Ismay’s death. “I know he was 96 but he is so vital … He’s been there my entire life, since I was 19 … Ten or 15 years ago, he said he was so happy to see how I turned out and I was shocked.”

Following his career in academia and home-energy services, Mr. Ismay retired on a farm in Berne, moving to an assisted-living facility in recent years due to his declining health.

A year ago, in the midst of the pandemic, when Mr. Ismay was in the assisted-living facility, he called Commissioner Riitano. “He asked me if I knew where he could get a job,” said Ms. Riitano. “He was 95.”

Mr. Ismay suggested he could write articles and Ms. Riitano urged him to write about “what being a senior means and how important it is to stay connected and involved.” Her department has just now launched the newsletter that Mr. Ismay was poised to write for.

“He would read three or four papers a day,” said Ms. Riitano.

John Ismay, a New York Times reporter covering Washington, D.C., said Mr. Ismay was proud of his work. John Ismay gave his uncle a print subscription to The Times, which Mr. Ismay read thoroughly every day. Just last week, John Ismay finally canceled the subscription. “I just didn’t want to,” he said.

“Lou was not done working,” said John Ismay. “He had more projects. He had podcasts he was recording ... Lou had stuff he wanted to say that was worth hearing.”

His nephew concluded, “I have a hard time thinking of anyone who lived as full and meaningful a life as Lou did.”
 

****

Louis Fletcher Ismay is survived by his son, John Fletcher Ismay, of Jacksonville, Florida as well as five grandchildren, David Edwards, Daniel Ismay, Debra (née Ismay) Sherman, Kacey Ismay, and Kelly Ismay, and five great-grandchildren.

He is also survived by his brother, Arthur P. Ismay, and sister-in-law, Mary Ismay, of McLean, Virginia; by his niece Catherine (née Ismay) McGahren of Crozet, Virginia; by his nephews, Peter Ismay of Towson, Maryland, David Ismay of Boston, Massachusetts, and John Ismay of Arlington, Virgina. 

Burial will be with military honors at the Gerald B.H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery in Schuylerville, New York in Saratoga County on Friday, Nov. 12, at 10 a.m. All are welcome to join the graveside service as well as a memorial service and celebration of life at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany at 405 Washington Avenue in Albany at noon on Nov. 12.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Albany chapter of Veterans For Peace or to Friends of the Pine Bush.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer with John Ismay

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