Ferger at the Crestwood protests. (Photo courtesy of the group We Are Seneca Lake)

DRYDEN, N.Y. — Martha Ferger has some friends who, also retired, spend much of their days playing shuffleboard and backgammon.


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Bus To Nature: Route 22

“I know people like that,” says Ferger, 91. “But I don’t spend a lot of time with them.”

Which is not surprising: Ferger is not your average retiree. The Dryden resident says she spends much of her time tracking environmental causes, talking to organizers and working as a foot-soldier in local advocacy movements.

Ferger, left, being arrested at the site of a proposed natural gas storage expansion in Schuyler County last fall

In November 2014, then 90, Ferger was arrested in Schuyler County while protesting a proposed gas storage expansion on the mouth of Seneca Lake. Deputies handcuffed Ferger, took a mugshot and booked her before releasing her on an appearance ticket.

There are smaller efforts, too. She still goes canvassing door-to-door for Congressional candidates, delivering campaign literature and trying to persuade local voters.

On Tuesday, as she does regularly, she brought sandwiches to a center for the homeless in the city of Ithaca.

Does Ferger plan to slow down anytime soon? She has, after all, been “retired” for about two decades from her job at Cornell.

“This is my life: To be involved in these things,” Ferger says in an interview over her dining room table Wednesday in the village of Dryden.

“I’ve got six grandchildren but you don’t think of your own family only, but of people in general. You want the world to be safe for them.”

Wife, mother, biochemist

Born in 1924 in St. Louis, Missouri, Ferger went to Swarthmore College and then to graduate school at Cornell’s graduate school of medical sciences in New York City.

She studied biochemistry — a field she says was new at the time.

“This was long before DNA and RNA and all that stuff,” says Ferger, who earned her Ph.D. in 1949.

Her husband wanted to be a family doctor and the two eventually moved from New York City to Burlington, Vt., and then to the Tompkins County village of Dryden.

Ferger at her house in Dryden on Wednesday. (Jeff Stein/Ithaca Voice)

“And it’s been our home ever since,” she says.

Ferger and her husband John, whose practice would become Dryden Family Medicine, had three girls and raised them in the area. Ferger also spent decades working in the labs of different Cornell professors — including one of a Nobel Prize winner — and got her name on academic papers like, “Synthesis and some pharmacological properties of [3-.beta.-(2-thienyl)-L-alanine]-8-lysine-vasopressin.”

The activism would come — later.

“I was more active in things like the Campfire Girls,” she says of her time raising her daughters.

This story is part of the Ithaca Voice People Project. To nominate someone for a profile, email me at jstein@ithacavoice.com.

Becoming an activist

Ferger first became heavily involved in local advocacy when U.S. Senator George McGovern, a Democrat, unsuccessfully ran for president in 1972.

“We wanted to keep the Democrats anti-war,” she said. “He wanted to get us out of the Vietnam War, and that was of paramount importance in my mind.”

Ferger was elected an alternate delegate for the McGovern campaign and went to the Democratic convention in Miami Beach, Florida.

“That was the peak of my political career,” she says with a laugh.

Ferger celebrates a fracking ruling in the summer of 2014. (Photo Pat Feeney/Ithaca Voice)

She became president of the local chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which worked on left-leaning causes for several years.

“My philosophy is when all the members of the board of a group are over 65, it’s time to close up that group,” she says.

‘A beautiful paradigm of someone who walks the talk”

In a community with loud voices and would-be frontmen, Ferger stands as someone content to play less visible but equally crucial roles.

“In all of these groups, there’s always someone who is more of a leader than I am,” she said. “I’m not a great leader, but I am a great follower.”

Her resume of involvement across many causes is evidence: getting arrested in the anti-nuclear movement in Nevada in the late 1980s; lobbying New York state over fracking; supporting the “home-rule” fracking ban in Dryden; fighting a proposed nuclear plant in Lansing.

“Martha and (her husband) John were at every Dryden school board budget meeting when I was on that board,” says Kathy Zahler, director of communications for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee, in an email.

Zahler said every June of every year, up to and including this one, Ferger “covers the village of Dryden block by block,” getting signatures for petitions for Democratic candidates running for office.

“I hold her up to my daughter as a beautiful paradigm of someone who walks the talk,” Zahler says.

Nate Shinagawa, the Democratic nominee for the Ithaca area’s Congressional seat in 2012, had similar things to say about Ferger.

“She held my campaign posters on the main intersection of Dryden for like 12 hours straight on election day,” Shinagawa said. “Martha offers genuine love and joy to whatever it is she does, whether it’s politics, community or church.”

Ready for the next fight

Ferger’s cozy home in the village of Dryden is adorned with dozens of magazines like The Nation and EarthJustice. With the help of students from TC3, she says she has now also mastered surfing the web — opening up another trove of environmental reporting for her to follow.

“There’s so many things going on right now,” she says. “I try to read them all, and I can’t bear throwing them away.”

Ferger at the Crestwood protests. (Photo courtesy of the group We Are Seneca Lake)

Ferger says she was not nervous about getting arrested at Crestwood, and that the stakes of the proposal were too high not to take action.

“I knew I’d have the choice of pleading guilty and maybe paying a fine or spending a little bit of time in jail, neither of which is terrible punishment,” she says.

She says her children and grandchildren weren’t surprised the nonagenarian would be arrested.

“For our county, trying to promote alternative energy sources and holding back on fossil fuel infrastructure like pipe lines — I think those are the most important things we can do to combat climate change, which is the biggest disaster looming in front of us,” she says. “…I wont live to see the worst of that; but really, in my mind, it’s the biggest worry there is.”

Ferger looks out on her tree-lined street, where her kids were raised and where she’s spent the better part of five decades.

“We all deserve the benefits of living in Tompkins County,” she says. “We may as well use the energy we have to prevent the world from drifting into disaster.”

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.