‘Devoted Educator, Admired Scientist’ Honored at Local Ceremony

May 13, 2024
• Thomas Eastman, a former science director for the Needham Public Schools, lives on through the local conservation area bearing his name.

Behind Newman Elementary School sits 35 acres of conservation land, teeming with native flora and fauna just off of school grounds. One science teacher’s idea brought past and present Needham students out of the traditional classroom and into an unconventional one right behind them.

More than 50 years since Thomas Eastman’s passing, his family, former students and colleagues and the Needham community remembered his dedication to science and education by rededicating the Eastman Conservation Area. On Thursday, local town leaders, Superintendent Dan Gutekanst and more than two dozen others gathered at the site, where students continue to learn about biology and ecology.

In 50 years’ time, people tend to forget, Eastman’s widow Beverly Eastman Warren said. This ceremony and rededication ensures her husband won’t be forgotten, but those who attended assured Eastman Warren of his “lasting legacy” in town.

Eastman Warren, who now lives in Cape Cod, said returning to the space reminded her of “all the people that love Tom.” She said his excitement for teaching and passionate scientific spirit shined through during the ceremony.

“He would be driving along Route 3, and all of a sudden he’d stop the car and go in with his little pick and get a piece of rock from the side of the road,” Eastman Warren said. “It just brought back a lot of memories.”

Paul Keyes, who helped construct a boardwalk at the Eastman Conservation Area, stands on a walkway after the rededication ceremony May 9, 2024. (Cameron Morsberger)

A 14-year-old Paul Keyes first visited the conservation area with his advanced biology class, who walked through the meadows and hiked through the woods. But with the pathway unfinished, the group had to turn back.

So, in choosing his Eagle Scout project, the Needham High School sophomore decided to construct a boardwalk for the area. He and his friends spent months seeing Eastman’s vision through, driving the last post into the ground in late November 1975, with snow on the ground.

Though his original “rudimentary” boardwalk has since been replaced, Keyes said he is glad to see the nature preserve persist.

“The area’s changed, it’s evolved, but it’s still here,” Keyes said. “I understand it gets used by the schoolchildren, which just makes my heart warm. And I have to think, having not met him, I still think that he’d be pretty happy with what we did, and I was happy to be a part and to contribute.”

Laura and Scott Eastman, the children of the former Needham Public Schools Director of Science Thomas Eastman, speak during the rededication ceremony May 9, 2024. (Cameron Morsberger)

Eastman joined the NPS faculty as a biology teacher in 1963 and became the district’s director of science in 1967. He passed away in 1973 at 36 years old.

While attending Mitchell Elementary School, his children Laura and Scott Eastman took field trips to the area their father cultivated. That time was “very memorable” to Scott, who went on to become a cancer researcher, thanks to his dad’s love of science and for showing others how things work.

“I had a lot of pride. My name was on the sign,” Scott Eastman recalled about those field trips. “It was a special time to be able to come to the conservation site with all my classmates and learn and do exactly what he (envisioned), to be able to live that.”

It’s also hallowed ground for Laura Eastman, who remarked about her dad’s positive legacy on generations of students in Needham. She and Scott were just toddlers when he passed, but “having this place as a tribute to him has been really special,” she said.

An article in the newspaper announcing his memorial service noted his “instrumental” work in developing the outdoor area. A story in the Patriot Ledger the following spring included an anecdote from a former student, who reminisced on Eastman’s contributions.

The Eastman Conservation Area. (Cameron Morsberger)

That same student, then-NHS senior Leslie Barber, recalled those memories right outside the conservation area, where she spent nearly every Saturday working alongside Eastman. As they formed the trails, Eastman, a true naturalist, would suddenly signal the students to be still, she said.

“And that was a moment not for doing paths, but rather for teaching,” Barber said, “and I learned a whole heck of a lot about the ecology of the area we were working in as we were building trails and spreading wood chips. It was a glorious experience. It was just wonderful.”

The conservation area began at the birth of the ecology club in 1971, and with Eastman as the club’s faculty sponsor, Barber mapped local wetlands, taught residents about recycling and, at one point, stopped a bulldozer.

A photo of Thomas Eastman that ran alongside a funeral announcement in the newspaper. (Courtesy Beverly Eastman Warren)

Eastman generated the idea for the area in Barber’s junior year, she said. Prior to his passing, Eastman instructed Barber to see the project through in her final year at NHS. She believes she helped fulfill that promise, after Eastman instilled a love for science that led her to become a molecular biologist and teacher. In his memory, Barber said she hoped “to bring the excitement of science to my students the way Tom was able to bring it to me.”

“I learned a lot about nature, I learned a lot about myself, how to organize, how to get out into the community and how to have faith in myself as somebody who could do those things,” Barber said, “and so much of that was a gift that came from Tom.”

Current students visit the conservation area to learn about pond life, the local habitats and more, Newman Principal Jessica Peterson said. During the spring, snapping turtles often lay their eggs close by, which affords students an opportunity to see “that whole life cycle in action,” she said.

The school raised money to implement three new benches for the area, and a new sign for the area memorializes Eastman as he lived: “Devoted Educator, Admired Scientist, Conservation Advocate.”

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