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One Sunday this past October, almost 100 mourners rode the D line from Newton to Longwood Station. Some of them wore Ron Wallace's family tartan colors. A few arrived in kilts, including the bagpiper. The bridled path they strolled along was a piece of the Emerald Necklace -- the series of Frederick Law Olmsted parks linking the Boston Common to Franklin Park.
“Externally, it’s just a walk. I ask people to make appointments with me and walk with me," Ron explained, in an interview archived at Tufts University. "As we walk, we exchange information, talk about parks, I may show photos, I may show maps.”
Ron created his Emerald Necklace walk in 1984. It covered one end of the necklace to the other and was a long conversation with one person that could take up to 11 hours.
"He knew what the plants were, he knew why the plants were there in this climate," remembers Ron's mentor, Harris Barron, from Mass College of Art. "I mean, he got down to where the essences were. That was his nature."
After art school, Ron worked as a digital engineer. But he took a year off to immerse himself in the genius of Olmsted. He learned botany, historical design, urban psychology. In his fierce mind, everything connected the large world to the small.
When he had learned enough, he began to lead others.
“Many people think, how could it be a work of art if you’re just taking a walk?" Ron questioned. "I would counter it to say, 'Well how can it be a work of art if you’re painting — if you’re just using paints? What it is that makes it a work of art is that experience.' ”
He walked with orthopedic problems, sometimes with a resurgence of chronic vertigo. Walking alone was painful. But walking with others was art.
“It’s very easy to put together a performance with hundreds of slide projectors and tape decks and things like that. That’s very easy to me," Ron explained. "What’s hard is to do this.”
The Emerald Necklace project ended before Ron discovered love. He was 43 when he met Gloria. Naturally, their first date was a walk. Soon they were married, soon they were parents. The plunge was fervent and full-hearted. Love -- particularly for his son -- became his next single-minded project. Even after ALS left him in a wheelchair, they went walking.
"He was a magnificent father," Gloria recalls. “He was very good at thinking about what he was grateful for. And so, I think whenever we were faced with any challenge, we would say to ourselves, ‘Well thank goodness we have each other. Thank god this person is in my life.’”
Ron died last August. He was 60 years old. His memorial service was like the reverberation of a departed self, another piece of performance art.
Toward the end, mourners and celebrants stopped in front of a Northern Red Oak. An old friend sang "Blackbird" — one of his favorite songs. Gloria dedicated the tree. Some of the walkers looked up, as if they might find Ron in the branches, looking down.
Did you know Ron Wallace? Share your memories in the comments section.
This segment aired on December 22, 2015.
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