It was only fitting that Eric Nelson, of the Palisades Interstate Park, gave a presentation at the Dobbs Ferry Library on “The Unknown Palisades” on Thursday, June 7. One of his last slides showed Gerry Blackstone, a member of the Yonkers Paddling & Rowing Club, in his kayak at the Alpine Boat Basin, on the western shore of the Hudson.
“It was always good to see Gerry—whether he kayaked over from Yonkers alone or with a group of teens,” said Nelson, describing Blackstone as a man with the same indomitable spirit that led to the saving of the Palisades. “He was also the nephew of Leo and Jack Schwarzstein who ran the Yonkers to Alpine Ferry from 1923 to 1956.”
There was a catch in his voice as he said this. Gerry Blackstone had died that day. He was 79 years old.
Blackstone’s mom had changed their family name from Schwarzstein, Nelson recalled Gerry telling him, because she didn’t want her son to be saddled with such a Jewish name.
“I knew Gerry since 1967, having him as a chemistry and psychology teacher back at Eastchester High,” said Jack Gilman, a member of Yonkers Paddling & Rowing Club’s Advisory Board. “He was a great teacher then as well as now. I don' think he had any regrets. He lived his life the way he wanted to.”
Gerry joined the Yonkers Paddling & Rowing Club in 2003 and threw his energy into his twin passions of chemistry and youth empowerment. He was an innovator; starting initiatives that would have a lasting difference in Yonkers, in people’s lives, and in public policy.
Gerry started a public paddling program at Yonkers Paddling & Rowing Club in 2007 with a big idea and a cell phone. He made calls to paddle club members asking them to volunteer and to local organizations such as Greystone Community Gardens inviting them to bring the children they worked with. He introduced thousands of children, teens, and adults to the Hudson River.
In more recent years, he contributed the seed money for the public program, now named RiverRiders, to be run by trained local young adults.
Gerry championed area parks; urging the City of Yonkers to support and expand places for area youth and residents to enjoy the outdoors. As an active member of the Hudson River Community Association (HRCA) he pushed for quality of life improvements on the west side of Yonkers. Gerry was recognized for this work in 2016 by HRCA.
Gerry pushed for the Yonkers Paddling & Rowing Club to participate in a citizen science water quality initiative to test Hudson River water under the guidance of the New York City Water Trail Association. He tested the water himself and often drove the sample down to Pier 40 in New York City. He started the conversation with Beczak Environmental Education Center, next door to the Yonkers Paddling & Rowing Club, to create their own wet lab. Today this initiative is part of Center for the Urban River at Beczak, a Sarah Lawrence program.
Gerry also co-founded Yonkers Paddling & Rowing Club’s Manhattan Circumnavigation, an event which celebrates its 15th year this summer with almost two hundred participants from around the world.
Those at Eric Nelson’s Palisades presentation who did not know Gerry Blackstone saw him as an environmentalist with a fascinating family lineage. Those in the audience who had the joy of knowing and paddling with Gerry carry a more robust image of him in their hearts—as a paddler who dressed like he was at South Beach who loved to laugh and talk about “what ifs;” as a generous spirit who welcomed newcomers to Yonkers Paddling & Rowing Club BBQs—often trying to enlist them to help in his latest plan; and as generous, tireless, passionate and unforgettable friend.
“Even while courageously battling illness during this past year, Gerry remained deeply engaged in his community work, including plans for this year's public kayak program,” said Bill Dennison, Commodore of YPRC. “Gerry will be greatly missed by his many friends throughout the Yonkers community.”