A view from the York Land Trust's Smelt Brook Preserve, where a trail was dedicated to Helen Winebaum in 2014. Winebaum died this month at the age of 90. Credit: Submitted photo courtesy of The York Weekly

YORK, Maine — When Helen Winebaum moved to York 32 years ago, a fledgling conservation movement already existed. The town had already purchased and preserved Mount Agamenticus, for instance. Several small regional land trusts had formed. But the big work of conservation was still in the future, and Winebaum was a key visionary leader in that effort, said those who knew her well.

“Helen was a giant,” said York Land Trust Executive Director Doreen MacGillis. “Without her leadership, this whole region wouldn’t be even close to where it is today.”

Not only did she take an inactive York Land Trust and build it into an organization that today stewards more than 2,000 acres in York, she was a leader in the Mount Agamenticus to the Sea Coalition, which today has conserved 14,000 contiguous acres of land in six towns in southern York County. When it formed in 2002, she led a successful fundraising committee that brought in $20 million, said MacGillis.

“All of the properties that the York Land Trust and the coalition have protected over the years in our corner of Maine are Helen’s legacy,” said Paul Dest, director of Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, a longtime coalition member. “Helen was involved at a time when the conservation movement was getting off the ground and she was one of the pivotal people doing the work here.”

Winebaum was 90 when she passed away on Oct. 2, after a blood disorder turned into leukemia and progressed quickly over six weeks, said her son Sam. The wife of well-known Seacoast philanthropist and sculptor Sumner Winebaum, whose family owned Winebaum News in Portsmouth, her sons said she was glad to give her husband the spotlight.

“But she deserves attention,” said Sam Winebaum. “She never wanted the recognition she so richly deserves. But she was such a remarkable person.”

Sam and brother Jake remember growing up with an “incredible” mother who was “absolutely a stellar example for us of how to live life,” said Jake. They recall trips to historical sites, art museums, archaeological digs, and walks in the woods, “always the woods,” added Jake.

“Her passion for nature and the land was always there,” said Sam.

“She was so committed to conserving land and raising funds to conserve the land,” said Jake. “It’s incredible what has been preserved in the region, and preserved forever.”

She was reared on a farm in rural Vermont, which likely served as the basis for her interest in conservation, said Sam. But when they were boys, they witnessed that passion first-hand, as she tried to preserve farmland in and around the 20-acre farm they bought on Hampton Falls Road in Exeter, New Hampshire.

In the 1970s, they said, she joined the town’s zoning board in an effort to forestall large-scale development. “And she saw, despite her best efforts, what happened in Exeter. All of that farmland has been developed. It’s gone forever,” said Jake.

MacGillis and Dest both said her contribution once she arrived in York can’t be overstated. MacGillis said she took what had been an inactive land trust, became president in 1993, created a membership program, got grant money to hire staff and started working to preserve York’s land — particularly around the York River and in the foothills of Mount Agamenticus.

“So many of our preserves were acquired during her tenure. The Highland Farm Preserve, the Smelt Brook Preserve, the McIntire Highland Preserve, the Hilton-Winn Preserve,” said MacGillis. “And she was a fundraising powerhouse. She was very compelling. And she and Sumner were both so generous, when she would ask friends to support us, she could say, we’ve supported this, too.”

But she was “a quiet, gracious leader,” said Dest. “She always let the group get the credit for an accomplishment, even though she was the primary force behind it. Quiet leaders are not always recognized, but I believe all who worked with Helen were aware of all she did for conservation in southern Maine.”

That willingness for others to have the limelight was also apparent in a wholly different part of her life — as an actor and artistic collaborator during these early years of Theatre by the Sea in Portsmouth in the late 1960s and early 70s. Before she married, Helen Auerbach was an actor in New York, appearing in early live television shows “Studio One” and “Robert Montgomery Presents.” On the stage, she was featured in the Broadway Play “Dark Legends.”

“She was a consummate actress, really,” said Jon Campbell, managing and artistic director of Theater by the Sea in the 70s. “She really was an up-and-coming actress with a burgeoning career when she married Sumner. She gave it up and I don’t think she regretted it, but you could see that talent in her performances for Theatre by the Sea. She was a major reason why in the early years TBS had such high quality productions.”

He recalls specifically the time he directed Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya” as a young man. “Her insight into character development, into how to approach actors and get the most out of them was just extraordinary for a beginning director like me,” he said. But she wasn’t interested in having attention drawn to her, he said.

Sam Winebaum recalls going to see his mother in some of those early plays at TBS, and being stunned at the woman he saw on stage. “The thing that always struck me was how completely she could get into character, how well prepared she was. Often the characters were very dramatic and completely different from who she was in person. I was actually frightened a couple of times. I couldn’t believe that same woman was my mom,” he said.

MacGillis said she will miss Winebaum profoundly. She was her mentor and her inspiration.

“Her motivation came from loving York, and loving nature. Those were her drivers,” she said. “And look at the legacy she has left behind.”

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