A Hudson Valley Life Well Lived – Marie Louise “Risi” Saunders

Marie Louise “Risi” Saunders. Photo with dog by Andrew Revkin. (2008)

An inspiration to several generations

By Andrew Revkin (based on background provided by Sandy Saunders and Betsy Calhoun)

The Hudson River Valley and town of Philipstown have lost a cherished presence with the passing of Marie Louise “Risi” Saunders. Born November 10, 1915, in New York City, Risi died in her sleep on April 7, 2012, at the age of 96.

She was a quiet influence and inspiration in hundreds of lives through several generations, not through any single accomplishment but through her graceful way of living in harmony with the land and seasons and her habit of happily blurring the line between family and community.

Through her annual community Easter egg hunt and class visits by students in the lower grades of Garrison’s elementary school and St. Philips Nursery School, Risi introduced countless children to the beauties of farm life. As Christmas approached, angels and wise men came to the farm for the St. Philips Living Nativity Christmas pageant. The only time Risi ever failed to welcome people into her home came each year at this event as she played the role of innkeeper and, in stoic tones, told Mary and Joseph, “I’m sorry, there’s no room at the inn – you’ll have to sleep in the barn.”

Marie Louise Goebel Saunders came of age in urbane New York surroundings, attending St. Agatha’s School in Manhattan and then Vassar College. But early on, she developed a love of animals, with her favorite companion as a schoolgirl being her pet chicken, Julius, named after her father.

Saunders on High Hat (1930)

At Vassar, she was a member of the Daisy Chain,  the traditional college pageant. She also rode with the Rombout Hunt on her horse High Hat. As early as 1930, she and High Hat competed in the Garrison Horse Show. After World War II the show was revived at the Saunders’ White Gate Farm, with competitions ranging from cross-country jumping to a costume class, with one entry being “the Garrison Fire Company saving a foundation.”

She resided in Cold Spring at Glad Acres on Lane Gate Road, where she was married on June 14, 1935, to Alexander “Ander” Saunders, Sr.,  her longtime love who had first fallen for her as a young rider. The young couple moved to Garrison and two children followed – Marie Elizabeth (Betsy) and Alexander, Jr. (Sandy).

At White Gate Farm, they kenneled 34 beagles from St. Peter’s Boy’s School in Peekskill. Beagling was an energetic hunt on foot and was the main athletic activity of the school, with the dogs and students chasing rabbits through woods and fields. The beagle transport vehicle, Chilly Bean, a converted passenger car, was a familiar sight with its huge wire cage affixed to the back.

Risi’s husband left banking with Chase in New York to run the Garrison Highlands Corporation. He enlisted in the Navy in 1942, serving in the South Pacific and North Atlantic, leaving Mrs. Saunders to tend the beagles and manage White Gate Farm, which involved grooming the horses, feeding and milking the Jersey cows, raising her chickens and tending her vegetable garden.

Risi served as board member and chairwoman for the Garrison Union Free School and actively participated in the Philipstown Garden Club, serving twice as president, from 1946 to 1950 and from 1960 to 1962.

From 1962 onward, she also served as national conservation chairwoman for the Garden Club of America and worked tirelessly with her husband and son on the establishment of the influential environmental organizations Scenic Hudson and Clearwater. The first concert to raise funds to build the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater was held in 1966 at the Saunders’ farm,  with Pete Seeger and friends performing on a hay wagon as a stage. Many of the formative meetings for the environmental organization named for that vessel were held in her living room.

At home, Risi continued to be actively involved in the farm operations and gardened extensively, growing most of her own vegetables. She also became a proficient weaver and seamstress, making many of her own clothes. The Saunders’ sheep provided wool for cozy blankets, many of which were given as wedding and baby blankets to her friends.

One wonderful example of her skill as gardener and cook was a seated dinner at her house in Garrison for the chairwomen and husbands of the many regional divisions of the Garden Club of America. Everything on the table, from the wine to the lamb curry, came from her garden and the farm.

She participated actively in St. Philips Church, including hosting the welcoming dinner for the arrival of the Reverend Frank Geer at the start of his term of service in Garrison.

Risi’s artistic talents were shared through sketches and watercolors from her travels and woodblock Christmas cards. She collected works from many of her artist friends, including Charles Locke, David Finkbeiner, Frank Heuston, Jerry Prueitt, and Joan Benjamin.

Loyal musical friends joined her every Tuesday through three decades for recorder sessions. The ensemble performed regularly at Manitoga and St. Philips and was featured as the cover art of the New Yorker in March 1980. More recently many of the same friends joined her for knitting and conversation every Monday.

Her neighbors along the historic Old Albany Post Road, which Risi worked to keep in its unpaved state, will miss the fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies that, until her final years, were always ready and waiting in a tin atop her refrigerator.

She is survived by daughter and son, six grandchildren and six great grandchildren. A memorial celebration will be held at St. Philips Church in Garrison at 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 28th.

7 thoughts on “A Hudson Valley Life Well Lived – Marie Louise “Risi” Saunders

  1. Beautifully done for a wonderful lady, passing cookies and sharing with the dogs to the end.

  2. From hundreds of miles away, I celebrate the life of Risi. She and I went to Vassar (though many years separated us)and learned there the importance of going to the original source to find the answers to big questions. My aunt, Lee McCabe deRham, was a recorder player with Risi. The two of them represent to me a way of life that we’re close to losing. Thank you for a beautiful heartfelt obituary.

  3. A wonderful lady indeed. I will always remember the freshly made doughnuts at Halloween.

  4. I feel so grateful to have benefited in so many ways from all she did in the community. With much gratitude, I hold her and her family in the Light.

  5. Thank you for making me recall: learning to ride for the very first time at White Gate Farm, and many other firsts: making candles, jam, cider, doughnuts, and wine there…skating on Earl’s Pond in the wooden skates Risi loaned me which she confided had pinched her toes for the better part of fifty years—but “being Scotch”—she’d just tough it out. Risi’s generosity was constant. She encouraged my mom to cut as many flowers as she wished from her garden for the Bird and Bottle Inn. To this day, marigolds—she grew an astounding number of varieties—make me think of Risi. Not long ago, I was thinking about Garrison’s own “Katherine Hepburn” and how much she gave her community—immediate and distant. I found this clip from “Sesame Street” shot at White Gate Farm, circa 1973. No doubt those children, who met Risi only briefly remember that day and the woman who made it possible.


  6. risi was a wonderful natural teacher. you didn’t even know you were being taught until you had time to reflect later and realize that new ideas had been inserted and windows to other ways opened. i am grateful for the time i spent with risi because i know she taught me many of the things that make a life ‘well lived’. i silently made her my ‘chosen’ mother/roll model (as i am sure many people did in their hearts), and tried to be a good student. hers was the type of presence that lingered and rose in the mind spontaneously, even when i didn’t see her for long intervals. something like a buddha would do, i guess. i think she must still be teaching somewhere… and i am so glad she taught here for a while. she has enriched everyone she came in contact with and will be missed greatly. so glad i could call her friend, for awhile.

  7. Thank you for sharing these reflections on a great life.

    I knew Risi as a “grandmother,” confidante, and female role model. She was my babysitter when my folks moved to Garrison in the mid-1950s and over the years our relationship evolved into something very rich indeed. I shall miss Risi, but I have a store of fond memories of the Saunders and their farm: gathering eggs from the chicken coop, feeding the horses and sheep, wandering through Risis’ wonderful garden, playing the little pump organ in the dining room. So many children were blessed to know this patch of green heaven and this wonderful woman!

    One specific reminiscence is worth sharing here. When I was in second grade at Garrison Elementary, I stayed with Risi for a couple of days while my parents were away. It was winter, and wanting to try out my new rubber boots, I found a frozen puddle in the barnyard and slid around on it, pretending to be a figure skater. Wouldn’t you know, I fell down and broke my left wrist. Risi in her caring, confident, and practical way, scooped me up and drove me to the hospital in Cold Spring to get my limb set. (My heavy plaster cast became a badge of honor, with Risi’s signature proudly displayed.) From that day forward, I knew that Risi would be a life-long friend – one who I could count on for support and straight-forward advice. This proved especially true in my “rough” teenage years, when I spent a fair amount of time seeking comfort and understanding from this wise woman. I know that Risi played the same role for other young people trying to get their feet squarely on the ground, and I expect she did the same for many adults and older people in the community.

    I loved Risi, dearly. I look forward to “coming home” to Garrison this weekend and joining others in celebration of Risi’s well-lived life.