Eulogy for my friend, the adventure senator

Stewart Greenleaf had a fondness for running whitewater rapids.

I’ll never forget the time Stewart Greenleaf and I jumped off a 30-foot-high cliff in the Pocono Mountains.

At a dinner meeting with the state senator in Harrisburg in 2006, we compared notes on kayaking. He loved the sport and I had done a bit of Class 5 action in the Sierra Mountains of my youth. So he says to me, “Why don’t you join me this summer and we’ll do some whitewater rafting through the Lehigh River Gorge?”

Six months later we set out in a 6-person rubber raft that included my son-in-law Michael Cosdon from Bedminster. Coming around a bend in the stream, we noticed someone cartwheeling into the river from the top of a sheer stone cliff. Mischief in his eyes, Greenleaf suggested I take the plunge. “I will if you will, senator,” I implored.

2nd rafting trip with the senator.
First rafting adventure with the senator.

Promptly we beached our raft and climbed up. From atop Jump Rock, I stared down. “Wow, I don’t know .. It’s higher than I thought,” I muttered to Michael. “Best to get it over with!” Stu shouted back, gleefully hurtling himself into the void. We all followed in weightless flight down the cliff into the clear water of the raging Lehigh. Wow! What a thrill.

Later we accepted a challenge from Greenleaf’s son Chris to try and snag Grab Rock while being swept along in our life jackets through the tumultuous current. Few were able, forcing a vigorous swim back to shore and the raft.

Sen. Greenleaf was first one off the “jump rock”.

In a followup adventure with the senator, my daughter Genevieve, husband Michael (making his second run), his father Paul from Solebury and fellow journalists, we engaged in a spirited water fight with other rafters. At one point, we hit a rock midstream, throwing Paul into the rapids where journalist Jo Ciavaglia, bellowing “Man overboard!” pulled him back aboard.

Carl LaVO comparing notes with Sen. Greenleaf in the Lehigh Gorge.

After both outings, we enjoyed laughs over dinner at Hanna’s Ugly Mug, a lively rafters’ hangout in White Haven.

Sadly, Sen. Greenleaf passed away recently at age 81. I’ve read all the obituaries. None mention his outdoors passion. He, wife Kelly and three sons were expert kayakers and canoeists on some of the most dangerous whitewater in the country. I feel fortunate to have known that aspect of the senator’s life and to have experienced it with him. He is most remembered for sponsoring 161 bills that became state law including authorship of Megan’s Law, the Grandparent Custody Law, the Rails to Trails Act and Missing Children’s Act. Colleagues called him a “giant of the Legislature” and a “gentleman of the old school” with civility, dignity and respect accorded to friend and foe. In the end, he passed more legislation than any other member of the General Assembly in its history.

The author being swept along past Grab Rock.

Always with an eye to enhancing outdoor recreation, Greenleaf answered the call to action by the American Whitewater association in 1976 to make Tohickon Creek in Upper Bucks an attraction. The state parks department had refused to consider releasing enough water periodically from Lake Nockamixon to enable kayaking on a 10-mile run from the lake to Point Pleasant on the Delaware River. After talking to Charlie Walbridge of the association, Greenleaf told him,“Send me a proposal – one page.” In just three weeks, he announced success. “How did you do it, Stu?” Charlie exclaimed. Simple, said the senator. “I met with the chairman of the Appropriations Committee and we put a hold on the state park budget.” The releases that began from Lake Nockamixon the following year continue to this day, turning the Tohickon into a Class 3 whitewater adventure twice a year for spectators and kayakers from all over the region.

Journalist Jo Ciavaglia and Paul Cosdon of Solebury bracing for upcoming rapids in the Lehigh Gorge.

Skip ahead 23 years to 1999. Greenleaf was canoeing the Lehigh with friends when someone mentioned the large capacity of the upstream Francis E. Walter Dam above Jim Thorpe. Steady releases could power whitewater recreation in the Gorge every weekend in warm weather. Greenleaf’s work on the Tohickon convinced him to investigate the Walter Reservoir. He discovered a road behind the dam flooded whenever enough water to make rafting possible backed up in the lake. Greenleaf envisioned relocating the road to the top of the dam, allowing for more water to be stored for releases. The senator brought together a coalition of local, state and federal legislators who convinced the federal government to provide $2 million to move the road to the top of the dam. By 2005 operators raised the level of the reservoir. The changes have resulted in 22 weekly water releases to sustain thriving commercial rafting. Upwards of 3,000 rafters pass through the Gorge every weekend, giving the region a badly needed economic jolt.

If ever I get chance to make another leap from Jump Rock, I’ll think of my friend the adventure senator who made a difference in all our lives – indoors and out.


Stewart Greenleaf’s successful campaign for whitewater releases from Lake Nockamixon in Upper Bucks is described on the American Whitewater’s website at The Willow Grove lawmaker served the 12th senatorial district representing Bucks and Montgomery counties for 42 years in the Legislature..

Carl LaVO can be reached at carllavo0