August 18, 2005 | General


BioCycle August 2005, Vol. 46, No. 8, p. 22
Words of recollection and warmth show great fondness of the many who had the privilege of knowing Mary Appelhof, earthworm educator.

How lucky I feel to say that Mary was a friend, a colleague, and an inspiration to me. Her unbounded enthusiasm, her passion to make a difference, and her ability to draw people together in a common cause, made Mary a gift to all of us – one that will continue to give into the future. I have many joyous memories of Mary, here are a few:
When I first met Mary, she had one arm in a vermicompost windrow nearly as tall as she was at the American Resource Recovery facility, quite possibly the largest vermicomposting facility in the world. Each time she pulled her hand out of the pile full of healthy, working worms, she would giggle and exclaim with the unbridled enthusiasm that created her reputation. I was lucky to experience her joy about worms many times over the years, as she “performed” at workshops for teachers, Master Composters and worm workers in San Jose.
While attending a Vermico workshop in Orlando, Florida, a group of us which included Kelly Slocum, Rhonda Sherman, myself and Mary, had a free Saturday and headed out for Disney’s Epcot Center. When we came upon the agricultural demonstration village, our group switched into high gear. At the composting demonstration site, bins were opened, worms were extracted, and many recommendations were made. The cast members, in their Colonial costumes, were a bit flustered until I pointed out Mary’s book, which was on their resource shelf. When they saw who their visitor was, the tables were turned and they were the audience. They had the book autographed, and produced their camera, asking to be photographed with Mary. It takes a rare character to create competition for a photo with Cinderella – Mary is our own princess of putrecibles.
Mary had the inspired idea to bring land and sea together by organizing a trip of worm workers to take a week as dolphin researchers with Kathleen Dudinski of the Dolphin Communication Project. So, we followed Mary to the Bahamas to apply our scientific method. Mary studied water “worms”, showed us her swimming skills, and showed off a different tie-dye shirt for every day of the trip. It is one of my most wonderful memories and I would never have taken the trip if not for Mary’s enthusiastic suggestions.
Mary had a dream that her efforts would result in a million worm bins. I imagine that she had already achieved that in her short lifetime. The question that remains for all of us is how we will continue her legacy. What will YOU do to help carry on the work of this wonderful worm worker? Take a worm workshop, start a bin for a local school, your neighbor, (or yourself), donate a copy of Worms Eat my Garbage or Compost by Gosh to your local library, and do your part to Spread the Worm!
Michele Young
Environmental Services Department
San Jose, California
She lived in my hometown, so we’ve been friends for a long time-before she was widely known. We were both passionate about keeping trash out of landfills, so we were community activists together in the 1980’s. We successfully fought off efforts to site a trash incinerator in Kalamazoo, and instead convinced city and county officials to adopt a recycling program. Mary and I delivered comments at every county board meeting during this time, and I’ll never forget a county commissioner turning to the audience and saying (with exasperation), “Is there anyone here besides Mary Appelhof and Rhonda Sherman who wishes to speak?” As you can imagine, the two of us were a force to contend with!
Thanks for offering to publish memories of Mary. She would like that, and so would all of the people who are missing her. What I just wrote about is when I spent the most time with Mary, since I moved away from Kalamazoo in 1990. Of course, our friendship continued over the past 15 years and I’m sure I could think of things related to worms. But I would like people to know that Mary’s passions and influence went beyond vermicomposting.
Rhonda Sherman
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, North Carolina
YEARS AGO maybe when Mary was about 55, she played on ILSR’s softball team at one of our May Day birthday parties. (ILSR was founded on 1 May 1974.) No one realized what a good athlete she was. Well she got two hits, one she had to beat out at first base. She scored both times. One might say that she wormed her way around the bases.
Another delight was to see Mary with children. One of her first projects was to work with inner city kids in Kalamazoo. When she stayed at my house in DC in the l970’s, her eyes gleamed as she explained things about worms to my kids. They built a worm bin together. Both kids went to the science finals in their school with worm projects. Ollie “proved” that worms don’t like light and that they follow the food. As Mary said, “let the worms do the walking.” Then Chloe experimented with which foods the worms like best (as judged by which food groups disappeared first).
Mary’s books have now taught and excited thousands of kids and like mine, they are wormers for life. If you want to see that gleam in Mary’s eyes when she was with kids, look at her movie. She expressed that same thrill of teaching and opening up the eyes of adults as well.
I also admired Mary for her spirit in overcoming disappointment and discrimination. In the early 70s (maybe late 60s) she was deprived of a PhD in biology due to discrimination against her professor, a woman who challenged the then orthodoxy. But she only once referred to it with me. And, or course, she went on to show them that she was PhD +++ quality not only in the high standards of her scientific work but also in her efforts to improve the world in environmental and social areas. She was a scientist, businesswoman and a social activist. What a person!!!
A few million more like her and recyclers would rule the world.
Neil Seldman
Institute For Local Self-Reliance
Washington, D.C.
Mary had the amazing combination of excellent knowledge and an enthusiastic energy that just propelled us all forward. She always made herself available and approached issues with a can-do attitude. Often, I would send her an e-mail in the evening and a reply would scoot back right away. A phone conversation quickly followed which allowed us to catch up and solve all the problems in the world.
I remember calling her once to ask her what a bunch of worms were called. She said that she didn’t know but that she would think about it. Fast forward to a BioCycle conference which we both attended and a shout from her from across the room: “Susan … we’ve figured it out. It’s a squirm of worms.” “Well, Mary, we’re just going to have to announce this to the world.” A press release was issued, and it got picked up by all kinds of media.
Mary’s work and beliefs will continue to move forward through all of us. It is privilege to have had the chance to work with and learn from her and have her as a friend.
Susan Antler
Composting Council of Canada
Toronto, Canada
Mary Appelhof, author of Worms Eat My Garbage and Worms Eat Our Garbage, and publisher of other books on home and classroom vermicomposting, passed away earlier today, May 4th. Renowned as the “Worm Woman”, Mary was the premier educator on home vermicomposting and is widely credited as the force behind the growing number of household worm bins around the world. She became the icon of the vermicomposting community. Loved for her humor and her kindness, admired for her energy and dedication, and recognized by her trademark tie-dyed t-shirts and the ever-present rubber earthworm in her pocket, Mary charmed and wooed thousands into keeping worms beneath the kitchen sink, and coaxed many into helping her encourage responsible environmental stewardship. The world has been better for her having been in it, and is a little lessened today with her passing. In her memory, I offer these words:
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.
– Bessie Stanley (adapted)
Ah, Mary! What a success you have been, and how missed you will be!
Kelly Slocum
Dr. Subler’s Living Soil
Vancouver, Washington

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