By Maurice Carter, Sustainable Newton President
I’m making my shoulders strong for the young to stand upon,
Stepping lightly on the backs of those who hold me up.
When the railroad was finally ready to move forward in 2009, the project lost support among council members and commissioners in office at that time. And, it eventually evolved into a community rift which lingered through years of debate and activism, with public pressure from both sides.
Roger Sheridan passed away in office in December 2013. At 92, he was recognized as the oldest serving mayor in America. A member of "The Greatest Generation" and a veteran of World War II, Mayor Sheridan was the most unlikely rail trail activist you could imagine. And, yet, there he was, in the thick of things and refusing to take "no" for an answer. When, it became clear by 2011 that neither the Covington City Council nor the Newton County Board of Commissioners would act to acquire the corridor from Norfolk Southern with funds already set aside by Congress, Mayor Sheridan stepped in. He reached out to Norfolk Southern to say the Town of Newborn was interested in purchasing the rail line. He persuaded his Town Council to authorize him to write a letter of intent.
He eventually persuaded the towns of Mansfield, Oxford, and Porterdale to go along too. Those four cities and the non-profit Newton Trails sent a letter of intent to the railroad company and began an extended negotiation on how to accomplish the acquisition. Without adequate funds to complete the purchase, Mayor Sheridan's gambit was only a way to buy time. But, time was exactly what we needed. Exploring every avenue, we eventually reached The Conservation Fund and convinced them to lend Newton Trails funds necessary for buying the rail corridor. It was a step that lent credibility to the group and the effort. In time, we reached agreement in 2013 for a less costly deal allowing Newton Trails to lease the line from Norfolk Southern and sublease it to local governments for trail development (or to develop it themselves).
Today, that lease/sublease arrangement is what allowed Mansfield to pave the rail corridor through its downtown, and that same structure is making it possible for Covington and Newton County to pave sections of the trail too.
For me personally, this project taught me everything I know about perseverance. And, when it comes to sustainability, there is no capability more crucial than the ability to persist. It's a resilience we can only possess ourselves by learning fully the lessons of those who came before us.
When Sustainable Newton helped the City of Covington adopt a sustainability resolution for the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day earlier this year, we included these words:
WHEREAS, the City of Covington Mayor, City Council, and citizens recognize our considerable debt to those who came before us and whose wise planning and hard work left to us the economic vitality, quality of life, and natural environment we enjoy today; and
WHEREAS, the City of Covington Mayor, City Council, and citizens are committed to planning and working diligently in sustainable ways to pass along that same gift to those generations who will succeed us; and
Roger Sheridan understood his place in the past, present, and future of the Town of Newborn. He believed in that trail -- not because of what it would mean to him, but because of what it would mean for future generations in his town. For what it would do to preserve something precious and rare from their past for them to pass along to those who would follow.
Sustainability is not a project or a set of initiatives. It's not a particular policy we encode into law. It's not just habits that reduce our carbon or solid waste footprint. It's a way of thinking about our place in time with a full appreciation of the past we've inherited and the future we'll leave behind. Continuing those lyrics from Susan Osborn:
It's a chain of life unending, ever new and ever bending
Grateful in the heart for the change to be alive.
And grateful is my heart to Roger Sheridan -- and many others who came before me -- for their strong, unselfish shoulders. It's a debt we can only pay forward.