By Kevin Coughlin
It’s hard to envision what Greater Morristown would be like today if the Port Authority had succeeded a half-century ago in transforming the Great Swamp into the region’s fourth major airport.
It’s even harder to imagine a grass-roots effort, generations before social media, actually defeating such an entrenched colossus as the Port Authority.
That nine-year fight is remembered in an hour-long documentary that premiered on Saturday before a large and enthusiastic audience at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown.
Any good story needs heroes and villains, and Saving the Great Swamp, Battle to Defeat the Jetport has several.
The prime villain: Austin Tobin, the late executive director of the Port of New York Authority, who insisted that the Great Swamp was the best place for a new airport, even though it lay just beyond the Port Authority’s jurisdiction.
His push for the airport was premised partly on the flawed notion that jets from Europe would need to land there before continuing across the U.S. One of his prime allies was New Jersey Gov. Robert Meyner, who with Tobin continued pushing for the Great Swamp airport even after it appeared to be dead.
The heroes included a politician, a philanthropist and a housewife.
Congressman Peter Frelinghuysen Jr., father of present Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.), went toe-to-toe with Meyner.
Marcellus Hartley Dodge, owner of the Remington Arms company, gifted land to the Department of the Interior, leading to creation of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and placing a roadblock in the Port Authority’s way.
Helen Fenske had lesser means, but her Green Village kitchen became a potent weapon in the battle. It was the hub for the volunteer campaign that was crucial to the battle.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin
“She loved to throw parties like this,” Helen’s son, Morristown attorney Karl Fenske, said at a V.I.P. gathering before Saturday’s free screening. “She’d buttonhole you at parties like this, and say, ‘I know just the thing for you to do. We’re going to go to the Great Swamp and photograph spotted salamanders!'”
Karl’s sister, Susan Fenske McDonough, called the movie “beautifully done,” and agreed that their mother would have eaten up this event.
“She would be working the room,” Susan said. “One person can make a difference, which we saw with mom. She was just a catalyst and a bully, a person with a mission. She didn’t mind pushing people’s buttons.”
As a 9-year-old, Karl learned a lot at his mother’s side: How to cook, how to cultivate the press, and especially, the value of citizen involvement.
“Everybody makes a big deal about her. But she was just a lightning rod. She’d get people interested, and they would do the work,” Karl said.
The only downside to the evening: It was “a little sad, a little wistful,” seeing old pictures of his mom on the giant screen.
“I miss her. She was a great inspiration to me, and a lot of other people.”
‘THIS AREA WOULD HAVE BEEN DECIMATED’
The movie was based on a book by Cam Cavanaugh.
“It’s fabulous,” said the author of Saving the Great Swamp: The People, the Power Brokers, and an Urban Wilderness, who lives in Basking Ridge. “It illustrated every page of my book just as I would have wanted.
Director Scott Morris, who produced a PBS special about the restoration of Dick Cavett’s home, said weaving together archival footage, newspaper clipping and interviews for Jetport was a challenge.
“Trying to boil down an extremely complex story to an hour film, that was the hardest part. So much happened, there were so many players over nine years. The challenge was to decide what would hold the audience’s interest, and hold it together,” said Morris, a Chatham resident for 25 years.
Morris and his crew shot 30 hours of interviews. Most were done in Harding Mayor Nicolas Platt’s home, Hartley House, where his godfather, Marcellus Hartley Dodge Sr., once lived.
The idea for the film came from a conversation between Platt and co-producer Larry Fast, an avid local historian.
Platt had been giving slideshow presentations about the jetport fight. He put Fast in touch with philanthropist Dillard Kirby.
Kirby and his wife Adrienne were major backers of the documentaries Morristown: Where America Survived and Open Spaces & Historic Places in Morris County.
Dillard Kirby was born in 1959–the year the airport story erupted–and grew up in Chatham, where the jets would have rumbled.
“This whole area would have been decimated. One runway would have stretched to Convent Station, and the other end would have been on Long Hill Road,” Kirby said.
“It’s a local story with national implications. It overlapped three presidents. It was the start of the environmental movement, and Earth Day as we know it.”
Kirby reached out to friends in the philanthropic community, and a dozen of them agreed to contribute, through the nonprofit Community Foundation of New Jersey.
The film took two years to complete. Actress Blythe Danner, who was recommended by Bonnie Monte of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, recorded the narration over two days in early November 2016.
Roger Grange was the cinematographer, and former Long Hill Committeeman Guy Roshto operated a drone for aerial video. Scott Morris’ son, Ben Morris, who is pursuing an advanced degree in music at Rice University, composed the score.
Editing of the film was completed just two days before the premiere.
‘PRETTY SLIM’ ODDS
The odds of beating the Port Authority during the 1960s were “pretty slim,” said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.), whose father, the late Rep. Peter Frelinghuysen Jr., was a key figure in the battle against the jetport. The ultimate triumph was one of the proudest achievements of his father’s congressional career, the congressman said.
It demonstrated the “power of local folks getting organized to oppose the high-handedness of New York and the Port Authority,” Rodney Frelinghuysen said.
Audience members liked what they saw.
Bob Yingling of Harding said it was interesting, after living here for 50 years, “to see on the screen what I heard about as a kid.”
Georgia Van Ryzin saw her sixth grade teacher, Cynthia Robinson, in the movie. “My jaw was dropping thinking what it would be like” with an airport in the Great Swamp, she said.
“We love the Great Swamp,” added Georgia’s husband, Bill Van Ryzin. “We canoe and hike there.”
Co-producer Larry Fast, a former musician who toured with Peter Gabriel, said he was thrilled by the audience reaction.
“They laughed in the right places,” he said.
Now he and Morris will focus on getting their jetport saga aired on PBS.
Although Austin Tobin is the heavy in this drama, he actually is a hero, Nicolas Platt said.
“We owe a great deal of gratitude to the Port Authority of New York for suggesting this area could be 10,000 acres of airport. Without it, there would have been no movement to save something that was not threatened.”
And the Great Swamp now would be a collection of shopping malls instead of a wildlife refuge, Platt speculated.
Kirby said the tale is timeless–and cautionary.
“It’s about the precious, fragile, undeveloped land that we have, and how quickly things can change without ongoing diligence,” he said.
“And it’s about the significance a grass roots effort can have against an organization as powerful as the Port Authority, and the quiet, behind-the-scenes work of everyday citizens and philanthropists combining their efforts to save their community.”