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Micronesia RPCV Bob Grimac founded a communitywide recycling program
Micronesia RPCV Bob Grimac founded a communitywide recycling program
Earth Day every day
In Bob Grimac's world, environment is everything
By KRISTI L. NELSON, email@example.com
July 20, 2003
Knoxville, Tennessee - He's one of Knoxville's best-known environmentalists: a song-leading vegetarian who bikes to the bank and to Bi-Lo and teaches children to compost. He founded a communitywide recycling program still followed by more than 60 schools.
Yet with a talent for kaleidoscope-crafting, a penchant for folk dancing and a monthly electricity bill of less than $13, Bearden's Bob Grimac is something of an enigma.
Now, pedaling toward his 50th birthday, the man who once dressed in a pig suit to protest McDonald's is picking his battles and teaching by example while still plotting to leave the planet at least a little better than he found it.
A boy and his bike
Grimac was born in Oak Ridge in December 1953 to an ORNL engineer and a stay-at-home mother who was "always helping people," he says. His parents were neither especially health-conscious nor politically motivated.
"We didn't hike; we didn't bike," he says. "We weren't vegetarians. We were just sort of the average West Knoxville suburban family."
He laughs. "Probably all this is a reaction to it."
Grimac attended Sacred Heart Catholic School and Bearden High School, beginning his first full-time job, at Tennessee School for the Deaf, while still a teenager. After graduating from the University of Tennessee, he taught school full time for two years before joining the Peace Corps - which, true to its slogan, he says, was the toughest job he ever loved.
From 1978 to 1980, he lived on the tiny Pacific island of Pohnpei in Micronesia, the first year in a jungle community three miles from the nearest road and 40 miles from the school where he worked. It was there he rediscovered his childhood affinity for the bicycle and became the only adult on the island to ride one, despite its impracticality.
"There was no paved road then; it was all mud, and it rained every day," Grimac says. "You'd have to bring extra clothes if you went anywhere."
He spent three more years on Saipan, where he served as reporter/editor for the island's only English-language weekly newspaper. The position, and the politically charged environment in which he worked, was stressful for the then-25-year-old, who took up smoking and stayed up all night reading every article.
In 1985, Grimac returned to Knoxville and resumed a job he'd held between Peace Corps assignments, as a recreation teacher at Lakeshore Mental Institution. He quit smoking but didn't bother to purchase an automobile right away.And though he owns and uses an automobile now, he suspects some people don't know that, since he walks or rides his bicycle daily in good weather, both for errands and for pleasure. In fact, when he purchased his home in "Old Bearden" 18 years ago, its proximity to the Third Creek bike trail was a big draw.
"(Biking) is the closest I come to flying," Grimac says. "I loved my bike when I was a child, and I never outgrew it. I don't see why anybody would ever want to give it up."
Grimac takes bike trails the eight miles from his house to Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church; it's more direct than going by car, he says. He belongs to the church and to several organizations that meet there.
Grimac once drove to St. Augustine, Fla., left his car at the police station there and bicycled to Miami, 300 miles over six days. "I was about 22," he says. He pauses, then adds: "I could still do it. I don't think I've lost any fitness capability."
Grimac's time in the Pacific Islands influenced his present lifestyle in other ways. After living in a tin-roof hut in a "very, very poor" culture, where "most people could hold what they owned in their hands," Grimac says, he simplified his own life. Grimac's house has never had air conditioning, and he turned off his water heater 10 years ago. He heats water on the stove for baths and dishes. He washes his clothes at a coin laundry, then hangs them to dry. His June electricity bill was $12.53. At one time, he collected used dishwater and bathwater to flush the toilets, but after a spoon in his toilet cost him $100, he says, laughing, "I don't do that anymore."
In Saipan, Grimac saw pigs and dogs slaughtered for food. For both moral and health reasons, he's been a vegan for 12 years and served as president of the East Tennessee Vegetarian Society for seven.
"Ninety-nine percent of my diet is plant food," he says. "I haven't bought eggs, cheese or butter for over 12 years, but I do eat some of those products outside of my home."
But he no longer protests, as he did McDonald's or the arrival of the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile in Knoxville years ago. Nor does he proselytize.
"I guess I've changed my ways," he says. "Now we're leading by example and teaching."
"Bob's not a hypocrite; he practices what he preaches," says Megan Brown, recycling coordinator for Knox County, who knows Grimac through his environmental education efforts. "He does it from his heart and soul, and it's what he believes and lives. If we would just live half the life he does as an environmentalist, the Earth would be a lot better off."
Protests and interests
Grimac's first protest came his senior year at Bearden. The entire school was taken to an assembly that turned out to be a Fellowship of Christian Athletes program.
"The whole Jewish population of Bearden High walked out," he says, "and I joined them. I was offended for them."
After that, he protested often, alone and with groups. He protested against a chip mill facility near Caryville, Tenn. He protested the development of Turkey Creek, "the biggest wetland." With the Vegetarian Society, he protested Knoxville fur sellers until the former owner of a fur shop told the daily Knoxville Journal the protestors had closed him down. To have "success" at the expense of someone's livelihood gave Grimac "mixed feelings," he says.
He protested the 1991 Gulf War, "which I'm not sure I should have been protesting," he says now. "There's difficult moral questions here, because I do believe Saddam Hussein is an evil person. But we're 4.5 percent of the world's population, and I don't know what our role is. There's many other evil regimes around the world that we're doing nothing about."
Grimac does believe America's dependence on oil and gasoline caused this year's war in Iraq. He went to two Knoxville protests.
"The first (protest) was very encouraging," he says, but during the second, "once we started the war, people screamed at us. They thought we were being disloyal, and there were only 30 of us then, so we were easier targets."
These days, Grimac doesn't organize or attend many protests. He financially supports Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Population Connection, Knoxville Community Food Cooperative and Ijams Nature Center and is active with Habitat for Humanity, the Bridges Refugee program and Children's International Summer Villages, with which he has taken groups to several countries. For six years, he sporadically published the Tennessee Green newspaper, financing it with credit cards. He gave up in 1999 and will have the debt paid off in "another year and a half," he says, shaking his head.
Grimac makes and occasionally sells wire compost bins. He also "lends" reusable plastic plates, cups and utensils for community events, collecting them and often washing them afterward.
Grimac is known for his enthusiasm, says Jenny Arthur, administrator of Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. This year, she says, he was leader of the church's Fiesta Latina, an event to raise funds for a program to help refugees.
"He brought donkeys!" she says, laughing. "He arranged for us to have burro rides outside the church, and made all the decorations, and just transformed the place. He's got a lot of energy, and he's very positive, and it just makes you happy to be around him."
Reaching and teaching
What really brings out that energy? Children, say those who know Grimac. As an independent contractor, Grimac teaches Spanish, sign language and music at area Montessori schools and noncredit sign language courses for the University of Tennessee. He's known for his kaleidoscope workshops; he does about 20 a year, sometimes adding kite-making, stained glass or papier-mache. He teaches folk dancing, to which he was introduced while a student at UT, at Tremont Institute of the Smokies, among other places.
But the bulk of Grimac's time is devoted to Beaumont Elementary School, where, in addition to teaching under contract, he started a walking club to encourage fitness and cares for all plants - inside the school and out.
"This had an abandoned greenhouse and 14 tons of gravel," he says, pointing into a flourishing green courtyard at the school. Grimac has planted flower and vegetable gardens, all over school grounds. He donates the time to maintain the gardens, sometimes with help from student or parent volunteers.
"One of my goals is to make (Beaumont) an environmentally friendly school," Grimac says. For six years, the school has recycled paper, cans and phone books, and some classes add food scraps to Grimac's compost pile behind the school. Last year's jack-o-lantern and watermelon "recycling" programs yielded "huge watermelons and pumpkins growing, just on their own," he says, looking just as excited as his students must have.
In 1994, while working at Ijams Nature Center, Grimac started the area's EarthFlag program, which challenges schools to recycle, compost, reuse paper and improve the school's site through planting gardens or trees. Today, more than 60 schools participate in the program.
Over eight years, Grimac has also taken about 1,000 children on his "Tour de Trash," a solid-waste education program that includes trips to the landfill, recycling facilities and the Knoxville Community Food Co-op. Schools apply for Knox County grants to pay Grimac. During lunch, he says, they sing "Bob's Trashy Tunes." "It's very popular," he says.
Grimac, who is not married and has no children, " is really amazing with kids," says recycling coordinator Brown, whose daughter was Grimac's student at Beaumont. "They love him. We need more people like him to do this kind of education."
Grimac is in charge of the children's area at Knoxville's annual Earth Day celebration, including the popular "Mr. Bob's House of Worms." This summer, he led five weeks of nature appreciation camp at the Knoxville Zoo. He also worked with Rainbow Camp, a multiracial Oak Ridge program that encourages appreciation of different cultures. During a Rainbow Camp field trip to Knoxville's Amoor Mosque, remembers mosque member Umoja Abdul-Ahad, "I was watching the expression on his face, and he was just as intent as the youngsters. He loves people, but he really loves children."
Abdul-Ahad, a produce buyer for the Food Co-op, has known Grimac for 20 years. They've worked together on several ventures, most recently Project 2000 Inc., a program to start recycling in housing projects.
"I appreciate that he's always been honest with me," Abdul-Ahad says. "If he liked something, he liked it, and if he didn't like it, he would tell you, but he did it with a smile. He wouldn't be backbiting you, talking you down, even if it was something he didn't personally support."
The future fight
For his 50th birthday, Grimac says, he'll hike a mountain. "I want to do something physical - shake a stick at (50)," he says, laughing.
Long-term, though, "I really want environmental education, (promoting) care of animals, care of plants, green spaces, transportation, bikes, walking, using less," he says. "I try to teach these things no matter what I'm doing."
It's a challenge in a time of overpopulation, overconsumption and urban sprawl, he says.
"I sort of struggle with how to articulate the need for environmental change," Grimac says. "I literally scratch my head. I was talking to (someone), and she says, 'Well, it's important to you, but it's not important to other people.' She's being sincere; she's not being mean. But that's a shocking statement. I don't know how to come back."
So he'll keep doing the things he does, until he changes people's minds or they change his. And if he doesn't live to see mandatory recycling in Knox County, or the Tennessee Department of Transportation respecting greenspaces, or a safe place to bike down Kingston Pike?
"I would die with a happy heart," Grimac says. "I don't feel I've done anything great. I'm sort of doing small things for the environment."
Kristi L. Nelson may be reached at 865-342-6434. She is health writer for the News Sentinel.
Copyright 2003, Knoxville News-Sentinel Co.