Photo by Jack Boucher on Wikimedia Commons

Not Your Typical “Eco-Freak”

Brian Balogh—

“The very first thing I thought to do, and I told our board of directors instantly, we must all buy shares of stock. And they looked at me like I was crazy,” Rae Ely recalled. She bought a few shares of W.R. Grace & Co. thinking “those ten shares are going to carry me far, and they did.” That Grace “was a corporation headed up by a man with a name—and it was an old family name, unlike ‘Mr. General Motors’ or ‘Mr. General Electric’” made it a “target.”1

When Grace shareholders met in Boston in 1976, Rae was on Peter Grace’s radar. His staff warned that “Apparently, Mrs. Hiram (Rae) Ely . . . has gotten to the Secretary [of the Interior],” who had written a typical “eco-freak letter . . . asking us to give up our vermiculite reserves in Virginia.” There was every reason to expect fireworks at the meeting, and a cluster of Grace lawyers and security staff was dispatched to meet the anticipated band of angry women.2

Instead, they got what Ely described as a solitary, slim, and pretty southern gentlewoman “dressed like a fairy princess. I mean really eye-catching clothes, not conservative . . . because I knew I’d be on TV.”3

“Good morning gentlemen,” Rae drawled in her best Virginia lady accent. “So sorry about your lawyer.” “What?” one of the men asked. As she headed for her seat Rae casually mentioned, “Well, you know he was arrested yesterday; I’m sure you’ll hear about it.”4

The lawyer, Bill Perkins, had diligently labored to clear Grace’s legal path to strip mine vermiculite (used in potting soil and cat litter) in the recently created Green Springs National Historic Landmark District. Perkins was rounded up at a cockfight near Charlottesville, Virginia. The incident had been entertaining enough to elicit the New York Times headline “Uproar Over Cockfight Ruffles Virginia Gentry.” The top brass at Grace were embarrassed by the arrest; learning about it from Rae Ely did not help.

Ely had arrived at the shareholders’ meeting early to get a “really choice spot . . . in Peter Grace’s line of sight.” As soon as the public comment period began she jumped to her feet. “Well, Mrs. Ely,” Peter boomed, “so nice to see you here again this year.” “So nice to see you,” Rae replied with her big cheery smile, turning sideways so that the photographers and hundreds of shareholders could see her.5

“Mr. Grace,” Rae began, “I’m just here this morning to tell all these share-holders how grateful the people of Green Springs are to you, sir, for the efforts that this fine company is making to preserve the beautiful historic Green Springs valley in Virginia from efforts that this company had been considering making to extract vermiculite.” Ely knew that W. R, Grace still planned to mine in what she described as the most beautiful eighteenth-century grouping of historic buildings “nestled in the shadow of Monticello.” But she also knew that relationships mattered. That morning’s mission was to establish a good one with a powerful opponent.6

The tactic worked when the entire auditorium burst into applause; people stood and cheered. “He’s just a jolly, hard-drinking, Catholic elf—raised by nuns,” Ely concluded. Forbes described the chair of W. R. Grace differently. The article praised Peter Grace’s ability to play defense, a skill he learned as Yale’s hockey goalie in the mid-1930s. However, with declining profits, perhaps it was time to “stop playing the brilliant goalie and settle down to being captain of the team.”7

The relationship took fifteen years to pay dividends, as W. R. Grace & Co. continued the bitter fight over mining in Green Springs. Then, on a hunch in 1991, Ely drove to Greenville, South Carolina, where Grace shareholders would be meeting the next day. Arriving at the meeting hotel at roughly 10 p.m. she described Peter Grace to the bellhop, who confirmed that just such a man had gone out several hours earlier and had not yet returned. Ely positioned herself between the front door and the elevators.

She only had to wait a few minutes before Peter Grace rolled in. Ely walked from the couch to the reception desk and smacked right into him, exclaiming, “Well, Mr. Grace, my goodness!” Flashing her most radiant southern gentlewoman smile, Ely continued, “I’ll bet you don’t remember me.” Did he have “just a little minute” to talk to her? He sure did: “Why for you, honey, I have a little minute.”8

“There’s something you need to do,” Ely told Grace. “What is that . . .?” “You know all that land up in Green Springs we’ve been fussin’ over all these years? . . . You need to just give it to my little group . . .; you need to just go ahead and give it to us. It’s the only right thing to do.” Peter Grace pondered and then said, “You know something? You are right! You are absolutely right.”9

Incredibly, Ely then told the chairman of W. R. Grace & Co. that they didn’t want to waste any more time—they should do it right then and there. Grace agreed: his “boys” were over in the bar. “You come on with me.” Ely described the scene when they walked in. “There’s these guys sittin’ with their ties all undone hanging around their necks. . . . And he goes charging up to them—scared them to death . . .” “This here is Rae Ely from Green Springs. . . . We’ve got some land up there in Green Springs in Virginia and I want you all to get busy and give it to her!” At which point Ely told Grace he was just the sweetest man. They kissed and hugged.  Grace then took aside two of his employees and told them: “You take care of this for her.”10

Even the most aggressive activist would have declared victory and left well enough alone at this point, but Rae Ely knew better. “Come on, gentlemen,” she said, “I’ve got the maps in my car.” She went over the parcels that their boss had just asked them to give to the citizens’ group that Grace had battled for two decades.11

Rae Ely insisted that appearances were a vital contributing factor to this victory. “That night in Greenville, where he was just falling all over himself? That’s only because I was a really pretty girl, all dressed up.” The pale green suede silk dress with a fairly full skirt and the contrasting silk sash combined with the high-heeled sandals were very smart—perfect for a spring evening. “And of course,” she added, “I always had my big, long red hair, all fluffed up.”12

As Not in My Back Yard chronicles, this previously apolitical “housewife” defeated the ruling oligarchs in a rural central Virginia county and a powerful Virginia governor through a series of end runs that shifted local battles to federal courts and administrative agencies. Yet, as the “long game” with Peter Grace displayed, success sometimes required an agent skilled at forging relationships and the performative elements that cemented those relationships.

The prospect of W. R. Grace & Co. donating the very land it hoped to profit from to a bitter enemy seemed like a moonshot, even after the Secretary of the Interior publicly promoted the idea back in 1976. But Rae Ely was prepared to bide her time and sensed the right moment to pounce.

Brian Balogh is professor of history emeritus at the University of Virginia. He was cohost of the popular public radio show, then podcast, Backstory with the American History Guys. He lives in Cleveland Heights, OH.

1 Rae Ely interview, February 1, 2011.

2 T. M. D. to Peter Grace, March 4, 1974, attached to September 14, 1992, Bona to Walsh, Plaintiff’s Trial Exhibit [hereafter, PTX] 319, Civil Action No. 3:95CV 0015.

3 Rae Ely interview, February 1.

4 Rae Ely interview, March 17, 2011.

5 Rae Ely interview, February 1, 2011

6 Rae Ely interview, February 1, 2011

7 Rae Ely interview, February 1, 2011; Patricia A. Dreyfus, “W. R. Grace & Company,” September 1, 1972, 26–29, quotation at 29.

8 Rae Ely interview, February 1, 2011.

9 Rae Ely interview, February 1, 2011.

10 Rae Ely interview, February 1, 2011.

11 Rae Ely, interview, February 1, 2011.

12 Rae Ely interview, February 8, 2011.

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