Greg Poleski really wanted to get me on the river.
It was 2012, about a year after I had written a series of editorials about historic problems managing flooding on the Missouri River, and Poleski had invited me to speak as part of the annual Big Muddy Speaker Series.
But first, he wanted me on the river. In a canoe, feeling the power of the dikes and navigation channels that I had been writing about. Before my speech, I got in Big Muddy Mike Clark’s June Bug and for the first time connected in a real way with the power of the river.
Poleski made it happen and it changed the arc of my writing on river and flood plain issues for the next several years. Every time I write about the river, I think about him.
And I will again the next time, and the time after that, even though he’s no longer with us.
Poleski died Monday (Jan. 20, 2020) after a long battle with cancer. He was 66.
“Friends assured me there were river clean ups in heaven that needed to be attended to,” his wife, Jaime Tarsi, told me in an email after his death.
Poleski, who grew up in St. Ann, is survived by his wife, three children, four stepchildren, nine grandchildren, and an entire generation of river advocates inspired by his hard work.
Poleski was an environmentalist of the highest order. He was a river rat. He worked behind the scenes to protect flood plain from development. He wrote dozens of letters to the editor educating Post-Dispatch readers about failed political attempts to turn the Missouri River into something that it is not. The founder of the Greenway Network dedicated his life to tilting at windmills.
“He was never going to win any of these battles because there was a larger system grinding him down,” said Poleski’s son, Christopher Melkus. “He was always chipping away at the process. He persevered.”
Indeed, just days after Poleski’s death, President Donald Trump erased long-sought protections for waterways in the country, in a cynical giveaway to industry, a move that will be guaranteed to add to the pollution of America’s waterways.
Were he still alive, Poleski would have been hard at work in his home office on a river bluff in Bellefontaine Neighbors, mobilizing an army of volunteers to raise awareness about the importance of clean water.
His persistence, Melkus said, manifested itself beyond river advocacy.
His dad loved shooting pool, Melkus said, and took painstaking efforts and patience to teach his son — even through the angry teen years — a love of the game, and, indeed, a love of nearly all the things that Poleski loved.
Like spiders. When he was 6 years old, Melkus killed a spider in the family home. His father took him aside and showed him a turquoise ring, given to him by a group of Native Americans at some river gathering or another. They considered spiders sacred, Poleski told his son. Today, Melkus, now 35, wears that ring and remembers a man who committed his life to the causes that brought him joy.
Those causes ranged from libraries to art museums, public radio to unions — including the one he belonged to in a career as a postal worker. That job allowed him the freedom to spend time working to protect the vulnerable watersheds in the St. Louis region, at the confluence of America’s two great rivers.
It’s near that confluence, at the Audubon Center at Riverlands, where friends and family will gather at 4 p.m. Feb. 9 to remember a man at the forefront of efforts to protect the Missouri River from degradation, to save flood plains from development, to educate the public about the need for sound environmental policy.
The Audubon Center is just north of Cora Island, a wildlife refuge that probably wouldn’t exist if not for Poleski’s advocacy. He personally planted many of the cottonwoods that now serve as wildlife habitat in the wetlands that protect us downriver from dangerous floodwater. When the Missouri River floods, the water slows down at Cora Island thanks to a channel that spreads into the flood plain, which formerly had been cut off from the river.
In a bit of serendipitous timing, in the weeks before his death, advocates for protecting flood plains from development won a victory, when the Maryland Heights TIF Commission voted against a tax-incentive plan that could have turned the area around Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park into a big-box retail wonderland.
Poleski, who used to live in Maryland Heights, had long fought development on that property. It was a tiny victory for sane river policy in a region that too often turned a deaf ear to Poleski’s simple wisdom.
“Who would want to use their community’s tax money earmarked for schools, fire districts and city roads for developing some pie-in-the-sky, get-rich scheme in the floodplain for some big developer?” Poleski wrote nearly four years ago. “Big developers should pay their own way if they want to be dumb enough to develop in the floodplain.”
This time, Poleski won.
He went out on top.