WHITINSVILLE, Mass. – The annual Blackstone Heritage Corridor Champions of the Blackstone Awards reception kicked off in style on Monday, Dec. 4, at the Alternatives’ Whitin Mill in Whitinsville, Mass. Although a number of volunteers and other contributors to the preservation of Blackstone River Valley’s parks were duly recognized, the highlight of the evening was the awarding of the John H. Chafee Heritage Awards, which included both Mary Lee Partington of Glocester, and Christian de Rezendes of North Smithfield.
The awards have been given out since 1999 to recognize individuals and groups who promote the corridor’s heritage, environmental conservation and quality of life in the Blackstone River Valley.
“These heroes have demonstrated the valley’s long tradition of leadership and inspiration,” said Blackstone Heritage Corridor Executive Director Devon Kurtz.
Partington, who taught English at Burrillville High School for 28 years before retiring in 2007, was nominated by U.S. Sen. Jack Reed. Although Reed reportedly could not attend, Kurtz read the nomination letter.
“Mary Lee began her career as a gifted teacher of English and is treasured by generations of students who grew up in the mill town of Burrillville,” the nomination read. “She captured the imagination of scores of young people as she taught them literature, poetry, theater and writing, inspiring them to share their family’s stories and learn about the place in which they lived.”
The letter went on to praise Partington for her ability to touch the hearts and minds of her students over the years, adding, “A researcher at heart, Mary Lee’s vocation is to learn, to teach and to inspire others to impart knowledge about the places, the people, the culture, the heritage and the rich tradition in the land she called home, the Blackstone Valley.”
Reed also pointed out that Partington was one of the founders of the nationally recognized Celtic music group, Pendragon, 40 years ago. That group, he said, celebrated the rich traditions of Celtic music, including ballads and songs from Scotland, French Canada and Ireland, among others, for people to enjoy. She also wrote numerous songs and ballads depicting the lives of those immigrants who settled along the river for all to enjoy. He extolled the, “benefit of one person’s contribution to the corridor.”
“Mary Lee demonstrates a lifelong commitment to showcasing the Blackstone River Valley’s rich history through artistic expression,” the letter read. “Her support of music, dance, theater and storytelling celebrates the corridor. She is an event maker, a singer/songwriter whose dynamic performance brings life to history and connects people of all ages and backgrounds. She encourages us to explore the heritage of the Blackstone River Valley and share in the treasure it is today. Moreover, Mary Lee Partington challenges us as an individual, and, collectively, as members of its community to be engaged in the Blackstone River with hopes for its future.”
Reed praised Partington for dedicating her life to promoting the heritage of the valley through her teaching, singing and support of traditional cultural groups who call the Blackstone River Corridor their home.
“She is, indeed, a noble steward of the corridor and of the cultural family of this very special place,” noted the U.S. senator. “This award honors heroes. It recognizes those who work on projects that promote cultural heritage, environmental conservation and quality of life here in the Blackstone River Valley. Mary Lee truly epitomizes the spirit of this coveted award.”
Partington thanked not only the BHC and Reed, but also her, friends and family and others who supported her over the years in her various capacities, from teacher to performer.
“There is a reason they roll the credits at the end of the film: so credit can be given where credit is due,” she said.
That also included her former students, and former and present colleagues, as well who, she espoused, contributed to her ability to succeed on many different levels. Among them was her ex husband Bob Drouin, and Russell Gusetti, who helped renovate the current Blackstone River Theatre. The theatre has been a popular venue for a variety of cultural events since its beginning in September of 2000.
“They literally scraped the paint and sanded the floors of a 1920s Masonic lodge until today it shines,” she told the assembled audience.
She praised Gusetti’s management, programming and care of the theatre, which, she said, she considers, “such a precious part of my legacy,” as, “absolutely brilliant.”
That legacy, however, is far from over. Partington noted that she and fellow performer Kevin Doyle are planning on an event at Providence Performing Arts Center in the near future. She referenced the Wizard of Oz in her comments, likening the Blackstone River Valley as her home, similar to Dorothy’s, adding that, “There is no place like home,” after all. Partington concluded saying she can be found, “somewhere over the rainbow.”
“That’s where you will always find me,” she said.
de Rezendes was nominated by the staff of the Blackstone River Corridor, said Kurtz, which, normally, does not get involved in the process. The nomination was unanimous.
“There was absolutely no debate among the three of us that he was deserving of this award,” said Kurtz.
The founder and filmmaker of Breaking Branch Pictures, de Rezendes has produced more than 41 films. Those include documentaries such as a 2007 film dubbed 41, about the Station Nightclub fire; Getting Out of Rhode Island; Raising Matty Christian, a movie featuring a man born without full limbs whose accomplishments inspired thousands; a film about epilepsy; and many more, praised Kurtz.
However, for the Blackstone River Corridor he said, one work, in particular, stood out.
“Really, for us, despite all of this work, it’s because of Christian’s work on telling the stories of Slatersville that we’re giving him this award,” said Kurtz. “He created an amazing series of videos.”
He noted that in 2022, the first half of de Rezendes’ documentary series, Slatersville, America’s First Mill Village, premiered on Rhode Island PBS, and now streams internationally on PBS. The film series, ten years in the making, received two regional Boston/New England Emmy nominations for Outstanding Documentary, as well as Outstanding Musical Composition, which it won. The series also received a Gold Telly Award for documentary series and three film festival awards: the Mass Indie Film Fest, Block Island Film Festival and the LifeArt Festival. The second and final season of the documentary is set to air sometime in 2024.
“Please watch this film, seriously,” Kurtz told those assembled. “He’s done so much for us.”
After thanking the corridor for the nomination, along with friends, family and supporters, including some of those who worked on the film also in attendance, de Rezendes reminded those assembled that the stories may now be immortal, but the people who told them are not.
“There seems to be a theme tonight about people who are passing, and all of this work that is being done in this vast network of people that we meet on a trip like this,” de Rezendes said.
He added that when he started working on the film, the goal was to make a 50-minute short.
“I wound up with an 11 part, over 12, 13-hour series that I had to do,” said de Rezendes. “That has been an incredible, emotional journey. I tell everybody I’ve interviewed about 150-155 people on camera. I’ve lost 28. Every day I get up and I hear their voices, and I see them speak, and, you know, that number’s not going down. I didn’t know I would be shouting those numbers some day, but here I am.”
de Rezendes explained that he has completed Episodes 6 and 7 of the second half of the series. He added that previews that have been shown at the Museum of Work and Culture have been sold out.
“I couldn’t have done this without the work that all of the people have done before me in preserving this history, the director said.
In closing, he recognized his pre-school teacher who was in attendance, Ruth Sunn, who was also a longtime language arts teacher in Burrillville.
“She doesn’t want me to identify her,” joked de Rezendes. “Hi, Ruth!”
Also receiving Chafee Awards were Chuck Arning and Stefanie Covino.
Arning retired from the National Park Service after over 24 years of service as an interpretive ranger in the Blackstone River Valley. He currently works as a consultant for the Worcester Historical Museum. Covino assists other local museums, as well. He produced a series of videos called Along the Blackstone, and has been recognized for his excellence in interpretation with the Freeman Tilden Award, along with National Park Services Network to Freedom Underground Railroad Media Award for his video telling the story of the underground railroad. In 2014 Arning was awarded the Leadership in Preservation Award from the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Covino, the Program Manager of the Blackstone Watershed Collaborative, was recognized for her dedication to keeping the river and its watershed areas clean and safe. She was lauded for her expertise and hard work in building and leading the Collaborative.
Bill McGinnis of Cumberland was recognized as the Suzanne Buchanan Volunteer of the Year. The Blackstone River Watershed Council/Friends of the Blackstone was awarded Partner of the Year, and the Blackstone Valley Paddle Club was recognized for its service to the Blackstone Valley for 2023.
Kurtz pointed out that more than 250 volunteers had devoted over 31,000 hours in cleaning and maintaining the greenways, parks and paths of the valley.