Some people around Portland know Alfred “Fred” Padula for the pointed e-mails he fires at them from a computer in his energy-efficient home near Back Cove.
Padula is a prolific critic, a nag even, of local institutions and bureaucracies that he believes are not doing enough to fight global warming. And not many escape that list.
But other people know a different, more private, man. That’s the Padula who volunteers to help people make their homes more energy-efficient and donates untold thousands of dollars for things like solar panels on school buildings, climate education programs, and library collections on global warming and energy conservation.
Padula, a retired history professor, is not a politician or a celebrity. You’ve probably never heard of him.
But when it comes to believing that the world is hurling itself toward a climate catastrophe, and that one man can make a difference, Al Gore has nothing on Fred Padula. And Padula’s passion is quietly making a mark in his small corner of the world, whether it’s because of his griping or his generosity.
He’s called a catalyst, a change agent and an unsung hero. He gives a more humble assessment.
“I’m an environmental gadfly,” Padula says with a grin.
Although Padula’s passion for the environment has been
developing for a long time, his battle against global warming is the latest in a series of careers.
He served in the U.S. Navy from 1957 to ’61. And he was the U.S. State Department’s Cuba analyst in the mid-1960s, after
Castro’s revolution and the missile crisis had thrust Cuba to the center of the foreign policy stage.
“Occasionally, you catch the wave in life,” he says.
In 1972, he came to Portland and got a job teaching history at the University of Southern Maine, where he continued to focus on Latin America. He wrote articles and co-wrote a book about women in socialist Cuba.
His career as a history professor there lasted 27 years, until he retired eight years ago.
Padula reinvented himself after his retirement. He canceled his subscription to a Cuban newspaper, gave away his library on Latin America and began his new career as an environmental activist and benefactor.
“He had some time to reflect on what was really important,” said Sandra Wachholz, a criminology professor at USM and a friend of Padula. “Fred is convinced that we really have this fairly narrow window to make change around the climate. There are people who are approaching this
through the lens of diplomacy, and there are others who feel
they just have to stand in the face of all these challenges and be as strong and vocal as they can be. And Fred is one of them.”
Padula has been a driving force behind Maine’s Green Campus
Consortium, an organization that helps the state’s colleges and universities promote energy efficiency and fight global warming.
That role hasn’t kept him from criticizing those schools –
especially Bowdoin College, the state’s wealthiest.
“They don’t have a single solar panel at Bowdoin,” he said. “If you look at all the institutions in the state of Maine, who has the money to really change? The (one that) could really change the paradigm is Bowdoin.”
A Bowdoin administrator who is on the receiving end of many of Padula’s e-mails did not return a telephone call for this story. But a spokesman for the school said the criticism is misplaced.
“We’ve been recognized as a leader in sustainability,” said Scott
Hood. “We are doing a lot and will continue to do more.”
The school’s efforts include programs that promote recycling, energy efficiency, alternative transportation and earth-friendly purchasing. “I don’t think there’s anybody who knows what we’re doing who would say we’re not taking things seriously,” Hood said.
Bowdoin is in good company when it comes to facing Padula’s
ire. Most of Portland’s large private and public institutions are not taking the problem seriously enough, in his view.
Portland city officials are frequent targets of his e-mails because Padula believes that his hometown, like much of the state, is still in denial about the problem.
“Thirty-six towns and cities in Massachusetts have energy plans. Not a single city or town in Maine has one,” Padula says.
The city’s hospitals, bus service, airport and water district also are resisting changes that would reduce wasted energy, he says. Padula sees the need for change almost everywhere he goes.
A visit to the Portland International Jetport, for example, led to a series of e-mails to the airport manager about excessive lighting and wasted energy. The airport has reduced energy use, although the manager doesn’t credit Padula with the idea. It flat-out rejected Padula’s suggestion to install solar panels.
A stroll through his Portland neighborhood led to an e-mail to Portland’s public works director complaining that a sidewalk widening project was eliminating the potential to plant trees. The subject line read “Asphalt frenzy.”
“These are the kinds of small things where you multiply them by thousands of habits, and they add up to significant costs,” Padula said.
“Everybody has their arguments about why they shouldn’t
change,” he said. “If we keep doing this, there’s going to be a price to be paid.”
Padula’s persistence and sense of urgency aren’t always
“Change agents are annoying. That kind of goes with the
territory,” said Dudley Greeley, the sustainability director at the University of Southern Maine and a friend of Padula. “It’s a difficult role to play in a society where all the checks and balances are to maintain the status quo.”
Padula’s frustration is carefully aimed at those with wealth and
power, Greeley said.
“The other side is, he has been unflaggingly, ceaselessly
generous at the other side of the
spectrum, with people who have no power and few resources.”
He has volunteered to make the homes of low-income families
more energy-efficient. Last year, he helped arrange for college
students around the state to pitch in to that effort. And he gives
away a lot of money.
That’s the Padula Cyndy Martin knows.
“He is an amazing man. He’s probably one of the most gentle
souls I know. He’s so giving,” said Martin, a science teacher at
Portland High School and the adviser of the school’s
Environment Club. After the club’s members identified ways to
reduce energy use at the school, Padula called and offered
$25,000 to make it happen.
“I thought an angel just fell out of the sky,” Martin said.
The school is slowly making the changes, including more
efficient lighting and new interior doors that will keep heat from
escaping through the front entrance.
Along with giving money, Padula helped the high school’s
students push for information from the school department
about energy use in its buildings. The department recently
posted the data on its Web site.
Padula usually remains anonymous when he donates money, but
he agreed to talk about a sample of his gifts for this story.
He paid for solar panels on the roof of the East End Elementary
School and Lincoln Middle School.
He also helped pay for a solar-powered geodesic dome outside
Lincoln Middle School, where students learn about climate
science and sustainability.
He donated $50,000 for solar panels on the roof of the USM
Community Education Center, one of numerous energy-related
gifts at the college’s Portland and Gorham campuses.
He also has paid for a program at USM that is training professors in various disciplines to incorporate climate science into their curriculums.
Padula, who is single, said the fact that he has no children allows him to be generous with money that he inherited.
Padula has shied away from the spotlight but agreed to talk
about his efforts for this story, saying somebody has to speak up. But he repeatedly cautioned against exaggerating his impact.
“I’d be very loath to say we’re saving the planet from 69 Clifton St. We ain’t,” he said. “We’re just sort of getting started in this, and there’s so much to be done.”
Blethen Maine Newspapers