This essay was published on HistoryLink.
John Beal used to say that he and the Green-Duwamish River were one. Indeed, his life seemed intrinsically tied to it and, in particular, to a forgotten creek that followed a degraded course through his neighborhood in South Seattle. Soon after returning home from the war in Vietnam — a young man with deep physical and emotional wounds — Beal suffered a series of heart attacks and was given only months to live. Devastated, he went to sit in a wooded grove beside Hamm Creek, a tributary of the Duwamish River that was so polluted it no longer resembled a natural watercourse. Something in him snapped that day, and he committed himself to spending what time he had left restoring the creek. Sustained by this purpose, Beal spent the next 27 years rehabilitating Hamm Creek and, eventually, the Duwamish, a river that had lost its natural identity and was largely viewed as a commercial waterway and dumping ground. His work led to one of the most substantial environmental restoration efforts in Seattle’s history.
The grit and dogged determination that earned Beal the nickname “Johnny the Terror” in Vietnam made him a formidably unshakable advocate for the river and creek’s wetlands during near-constant battles with commercial interests and uninterested government officials. Despite an often irascible personality, his passion for the river was a beacon for enthusiastic volunteers, an inspiration to curious school children, and sparked a movement of restoration that rehabilitated acres of wetland and won Superfund protection status with the Environmental Protection Agency. Although his life ended with a bitter defeat in a final battle to protect the source of the creek, his legacy of environmental stewardship still remains a powerful force in the region.
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