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The Everlasting Steward: Inside the mind, inside the world of Congressman Wayne Gilchrest

Apr 17, 2017 11:37AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Anne McNulty // Photography courtesy Wayne Gilchrest

Former congressman, Wayne Gilchrest, is exactly where he feels most at home—outdoors. On a 
clear blue day (last summer), he’s leading a group of Kent County Middle Schoolers on a kayaking tour of Turner’s Creek off the Sassafras River.

He leads his charges back to shore where they jump out of their colorful canoes. “We won the race,” some of them shout as they drag their kayaks back up the hill to where they are stored.

This lean man wearing knee-high boots, jeans, and a ragged T-shirt would hardly fit the image of someone who served in the U.S. Congress for 18 years, but he’s content to be here these days as the Program Director for the Sassafras Environmental Education Center (SEEC)—the outdoor educational component of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy.

Soon he’s greeting another group of students, escorted by Program Manager, Jaime Belanger. They’ve just returned from a rigorous hike through the 1,000-acre tract, Knocks Folly Farm, that belongs to the Land Conservancy. Everybody’s shoes are wet and muddy, but nobody cares.

“We were data collecting,” the kids say. “We picked up crawly things, bugs, frogs, and we took pictures.”

The eighth graders fishing from the dock are busy watching their bobbers. One says, “I’m not leaving here until I catch a fish.” Another yells, “Wow I got one,” as he pulls up a perch, pries it off the hook and tosses it back in the water.

Later that afternoon, a school bus rumbles along the driveway and the kids pile in. Another group will be back tomorrow.

The Educator

When Gilchrest gets a chance to sit down, he explains that every Kent County student from second through 10th grade cycles through the Education Center annually, where each student rotates through different lessons and outdoor activities.

“This place is a living classroom,” Gilchrest, a former high school social studies teacher, says.

“It’s important to give students a fundamental frame of reference by integrating all the disciplines such as science and math through the study of the natural world.

“We want the kids to leave here with a good feeling, so we create activities that don’t lend themselves to discipline issues. Children don’t learn from negativity.”

The Center, which is open all year, runs a summer school and also hosts summer programs in conjunction with the Department of Parks and Recreation.

“We take in kids from three Queen Anne’s County schools; we have kids from a homeless shelter; adjudicated kids; and those with psychological and emotional issues,” Gilchrest says.

When asked how this program began, he says, “I talked to a lot of people and helped establish it in 2010, a year after I left Congress.”

Funded by a grant from the Department of Natural Resources and other agencies, the Land Conservancy also leases 400 acres for agriculture and always welcomes private donations.

Gilchrest the Man

Now at age 70, when most seniors are already retired, Wayne Gilchrest still keeps the pace he has kept all his life—a life, which has taken many twists and turns as he strived to follow his own path.

Born in Rahway, New Jersey—one of six boys—he remembers a rural area dotted with chicken and dairy farms.

“We pretty much ran free during those days. People in the neighborhood would look after us and tell my parents if we got into mischief.”

His freedom was curtailed, however, when he joined the Marine Corps in 1964 where he later achieved the rank of sergeant. On May 14, 1967, while serving in Vietnam, a bullet from an AK 47 tore into his chest. Airlifted to a field hospital, he was soon flown back to the States where he was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor; the Navy Commendation Medal; and the Purple Heart.

After his discharge, he moved back home to a Rahway that had exploded in growth. Gone were the farms—replaced by shopping centers.

Ever restless, he left home again. “I worked my way around Maine and ended up at a poultry farm where they slaughtered chickens.” That is, until he broke his leg in the poultry house. His father and a brother drove up to get him and took him back home.

When a great-aunt got sick in Upstate New York, Wayne, now healed, was drafted to take care of her farm.

“I didn’t have any idea about college until a local minister asked me to help him form a Boy Scout troop,” he says. “I took the kids camping and began getting interested in education.”

Gilchrest enrolled at Wesley College in Dover, Delaware, and then transferred to Delaware State College on the G.I. Bill. “I had no idea what I wanted to do. I slid into a major.”

During this time, he bought a horse and boarded it for a dollar a day with an Amish family.

“My dream was to ride the horse to California, but unfortunately that didn’t happen—yet,” he emphasizes.

Instead, while in school, he married his wife, Barbara, who later gave birth to a baby boy named Kevin. Another boy, Joel, would eventually follow and then daughter, Katie.

After living in New Jersey and Vermont, where Wayne taught high school social studies, the family moved to the Eastern Shore to be near Barbara’s parents and in 1979, he began teaching at Kent County High School.

One memorable evening in 1986, he informed his wife that they were loading up their 1972 Chevy pickup truck that the kids had painted orange and were leaving for Idaho. He had an offer from the National Forest Service to work in the Selway Wilderness—part of the Bitterroot National Forest. Denied a leave of absence, he quit teaching and in May off they went.
“My wife cried all the way through Wyoming and then when we got to the cabin waiting for us in the wilderness, she spent one night there. The next day she and Katie flew home. The boys—now 11 and 13 stayed with me. I thought I’d found Nirvana there.”

Although he was planning to return home for the winter, fate again intervened. One August day, while working for an outfitter company, the horse he was riding was spooked by a swarm of bees. Panicked, the horse bucked him off. The result—a broken jaw that had to be wired shut. That was the end of his grand adventure.

From 1987–1989, Gilchrest earned a living by painting houses until he was re-hired with Kent County Schools. Meanwhile, he had filed to run for Congress. His opponent, Roy Dyson, who was representing Maryland’s First Congressional District, was thought to be unbeatable so no other Republican filed.

“I didn’t like his foreign policy of sending troops to Nicaragua during that time. He didn’t know anything about a young soldier walking through the jungle with a gun who’s looking for someone to shoot.”

When Dyson’s Chief of Staff committed suicide, and all Dyson’s corrupt dealings were exposed, Gilchrest almost won the election. He tried again in 1990 and this time won by a wide margin. Andy Harris then defeated him during the Republican primary in 2008.

Wayne Gilchrest

During his 18 years in Congress, where he was labeled as the most liberal Republican in the House, Gilchrest was the Founder and Co-Chair of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Task Force. Among his many other committees, he also served on the Committee of Natural Resources.
The piece of legislation of which he’s most proud, however, is called the Magnuson-Stevens Re- Authorization Act of 2007—named after the senators who originated the bill. Its purpose was to expand and strengthen the original legislation that became law in 1976 and was originally designed to give the Federal government more control and oversight of the fishing industry.

The proposed revision was worked out in the Sub-Committee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Oceans, which Gilchrest chaired from 2001–2007.

“It was a huge piece of legislation and we used the ecosystem approach to deal with fisheries management in a holistic way. We used the best available scientific, ecological approach in order to sustain the fishing industry,” Gilchrest remarks.

“Our two most helpful conservative supporters were the late Senator Ted Stevens, and President George W. Bush who garnered votes for us.”

When Gilchrest entered Congress in 1990, he remembers a body where civility ruled. “My policy was not to argue with anyone,” he says. “That civility left when Newt Gingrich and the Tea Party folks came in. Arrogance and dogma started to fill the chamber.”

In 2008, he lost the primary election to Andy Harris, but he had no regrets. “When I crossed the Bay Bridge on my last day, I almost forgot I had ever been in Congress.”

He shakes his head when he talks about the political situation these days and all the rancor and bitterness it has engendered. He pauses for a moment. “Yet the strength of our country is in the average citizen. It’s in the state and local offices they hold.”

He feels it’s also in our children and in how and what we teach them. Perhaps that’s why he believes the greatest achievement of his life has been raising his own three children. “They’re gentle, wise, and smart.”

Kevin is now an educator; Joel travels all over the world as a contractor; and Katie is a musician. Gilchrest’s goal, as he inspires the lives of all the children he teaches, is that they will be successful as well, have a clear understanding of the natural world, and be compatible within it.