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WORLD FOCUS: Meeting Diane Kirby, the river keeper

October 13, 2017
By FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

Several years ago, during our summer stay at our home in Lake Placid, my wife and I took the Cloudsplitter gondola up to the top of Little Whiteface Mountain, an Adirondack mountain peak, over 4,000 feet high.

While boarding the gondola, another sightseer joined us. During the ride, lasting about 15 minutes, we chatted. Responding to our questions, we learned that she used to be a police officer in Tampa, Florida, and together with her husband, also a police officer, they decided to make their retirement home in Wilmington, a tiny village, at the foot of Whiteface Mountain.

She told us about the challenges they faced to adjust to country life. After reaching the top of the mountain with a spectacular view, we parted ways.

The next day, talking about our conversation with the woman in the gondola, my wife suggested I write a column about her life and times. After all, as she told us, during her 26 years of service with the Tampa Police Department, she never used her service revolver. She always managed to resolve conflicts without the use of deadly force.

I agreed, a column would be a good idea. But I didn't know her name and couldn't get in touch with her.

I have recently received the Lake Placid News in the mail. On the front page was a large photo of our unnamed companion in the gondola. She was sitting on a rock overlooking the West Branch of the AuSable River, one of the most scenic and best trout-fishing streams in Eastern United States.

She was called the "River Keeper," the article, written by Staff Writer Antonio Olivero, described how the Flume falls, one of the area's most popular swimming holes, often become garbage-laced during the summer. He quoted Diane Kirby saying, "Yesterday morning was bad. They must have had a real big party here Saturday night."

Kirby, as a volunteer, started her "cleaning binge" some eight year ago. Most summer days, she comes to the Flume to pick up the garbage left behind by picnickers. After a busy weekend there can be as many 30 cases of empty beer cans and bottles.

In a recent email, she wrote, "I am putting a heating pad on my lower back after picking up trash for 3hrs yesterday."

But what I wanted to talk with Kirby was not about garbage. What intrigued me was how a girl who graduated from the Lake Placid High School in 1974 became the first female sergeant in the Larceny and Forgery Department of the Tampa Police Department. At one point, 20 people in the detective division worked under her.

"I was a legal secretary in the city attorney's office in Tampa, Fla., 21 years old, and found that sitting in the office all day long wasn't for me," Kirby wrote in an email. "The Tampa Police Department had openings. I took the tests, did very well. After I finished the police academy, I was assigned to patrol duty. The Uniform District 2 was in the east side of the city. A grew up in a small town in New York and quite frankly did not see a black person until my senior in high school. It was a culture shock. There were housing projects and people living like I had never seen before."

She answered police calls that involved everything from traffic accidents to shootings. Most supervisors didn't treat her differently than the male officers.

"It was a good job with benefits and there was always something different going on. I loved it, "she said.

In 2004, Tampa experienced three hurricanes. Her adopted son needed extra help and her daughter, now living in the North Country, had a child.

"So, considering the heat, hurricanes and humidity, my husband and I decided to move to Wilmington, NY," she wrote.

It was somewhat difficult transforming to a small town culture.

"Having to drive to a Walmart or a Target for 45 minutes is though," she wrote "I'm not much of a cook and not having much choice of restaurants, is hard too. But I never regretted for a moment coming up here."

Since settling in Wilmington 12 years ago, Diane Kirby has become the river keeper and her husband, Robert, has been a town of Wilmington town justice for the past nine years.

"My son received an excellent education at the Lake Placid schools," she said. "He is currently in a boot camp with the Marines on Parris Island. I am just so proud of him, He is continuing my life of serving and that's cool."

Frank Shatz's column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette. Shatz is a Lake Placid seasonal resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns.



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