She may be the most famous person in Wakefield, Massachusetts who never held elected office. She has probably helped more people, and has definitely helped more animals than any local politician. Twenty-five years ago, she founded the Protection of Animals in Wakefield Society (PAWS), which has rescued, provided medical care and found homes for countless animals and continues its mission to this day.

Her name is Esther Nowell, and she turned 90 years old on September 6, 2007. On Saturday, September 8, well over 100 people gathered at the Crystal Community Club to help Esther celebrate this milestone with speeches, tributes, music, a hearty vegetarian dinner and of course, lots of cake and candles.

Esther's Birthday Cake Esther was presented with a citation from the Massachusetts Senate and Sen. Richard Tisei’s office and a proclamation from the Wakefield Board of Selectmen.

Longtime PAWS member Joyce Littlefield drove over three hours from her current home in Vermont to be present for Esther’s celebration. Littlefield stepped up to the microphone and told about how she first met Esther Nowell.

Littlefield recalled that she had decided to write a letter to the local newspapers defending this white-haired lady who was embroiled in a public war of words with some hunters. Littlefield said she soon learned that Esther “doesn’t need a defender. She has steel-tipped tennis shoes.”

Selectman Betsy Sheeran told the crowd about her first encounter with Esther. Sheeran was on the School Committee in 1990 and the schools were in desperate need of funds. She volunteered on behalf of the School Committee to run a paper and recyclable bottle drive to raise money for the schools. Sheeran recalled that the only adults from the community who came to help on the day of the drive were Esther Nowell and Kristen Henshaw.
Esther Nowell & Betsy Sheeran

Longtime family friend Bob Eldridge suggested that he had probably known Esther longer than anybody in the room. He recalled that as a member of the Wakefield Citizens’ Scholarship Foundation, he assisted Esther in setting up an annual scholarship for a Wakefield student planning to go to veterinary school.

Another longtime friend, Kristen Henshaw, also saluted Esther. “We can be grateful to Esther Nowell for all the lives that she has saved,” Henshaw said, “for all the cats and dogs that she has rescued.” Henshaw also commended Nowell for her work to encourage spaying and neutering of pets.
Esther Nowell speaks
When the guest of honor stepped to the microphone, she remembered a Town Meeting to consider banning leg-hold traps, years before the statewide ban went into effect. Esther recalled standing in front of town meeting to make her presentation. Eight young men, all of whom were trappers, sat in a front row and stared, trying to rattle her. The trappers had maintained that leg-hold traps were not cruel to animals.

Esther told how she placed one of the leg-hold traps on a table in front of Town Meeting. After she set the trap, she looked at the row of trappers. “Which one of you is going to come forward and put your hand in this trap?” Esther challenged the group. None of them moved, and the moderator quickly put a stop to any such experiment.

But Esther had made her point. The article passed by a large majority. Town Meeting banned the use of leg-hold traps in Wakefield.

“I don’t mind being 90,” Esther said, “but what we really should be celebrating is the 25th anniversary of PAWS. We have the respect of the community. They recognize us as an organization that can help them with their animal problems.”

Esther had high praise for local legislators.

“Sen. Richard Tisei believes in our cause,” Esther said. “He has been very helpful to us. State Rep. Michael Festa has been helpful to us too.” Esther also praised the state legislature for acting to make animal cruelty a felony in Massachusetts instead of just a misdemeanor.

“I feel very fortunate, for I have a special thing that keeps me going,” Esther told the crowd. “I have a good reason for getting out of bed in the morning, and you know what that is.”

During the evening, several speakers recounted the “Starfish Story,” a favorite that Esther has often repeated. The story has many variations, but basically it goes like this.

As a young boy and girl walked along a beach at dawn, they noticed an old man ahead of them picking up starfish and tossing them into the sea. Catching up with the man, the girl asked why he was doing this. The old man explained that the stranded starfish would die if left in the morning sun.

“But the beach goes on for miles and there are thousands of starfish,” exclaimed the girl. “How can you alone make any difference?” The old man looked at the starfish in his hand and then tossed it safely into the waves. He turned to them, smiled and said, “I made a difference to that one.”

At the end of the evening PAWS President Sue DiMeo presented Esther Nowell with the first “Starfish Award.”

DiMeo read the inscription on the award: “The Starfish Award is presented to Esther Nowell in recognition of the huge difference she has made for animals, one at a time.”

[This story originally appeared in the September 13, 2007 Wakefield Daily Item.]

3 Responses to “A HERO TURNS 90”

  1. 1 redbudmag

    Remarkable woman. I like how she fought her battles….Inviting the trappers to illustrate just how humane the traps were – brilliant.

  2. 2 Susan Kagan

    I met Esther Nowell over 30 years ago. We had a challenging relationship over the years, and many times agreed to disagree. I am delighted that her concern for her fellow inhabitants of the planet continues to this day! I hope she has many more productive years ahead.

  3. 3 nikki celeste

    My Esther ! what a great lady with a big heart ! we need more people like her in this world , she would put her self out to save a cat or dog or even a turtle ” they have feelings too” she would reply , she helped me out few times with a lost or injured stray mostly cats , when she is gone I know we will always remember her and miss her deeply I call her to make sure she is ok but for 90 plus she still going god bless her , Esther has saved allot for the creatures of this world and we should all pick up the ball and continue her work.

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