Up until the end, longtime Durango resident Tom Riesing approached each day the same way he had for much of his life: with a twinkle in his eye and an unbridled passion for learning and recreating himself.
Riesing, 82, died at the end of October in Seattle after battling pancreatic cancer for nearly seven years.
Throughout his time in Durango, Riesing was known for creating the Oakhaven Permaculture Center, the first permaculture farm and center in La Plata County, as well as helping to found or sit on boards of a number of other organizations: Local First, Sustainability Alliance of Southwest Colorado, Durango Natural Foods and Healthy Community Food Systems.
“He was a significant player in the sustainability efforts in this community,” said former City Councilor Dick White, who came to know Riesing through the many organizations they were involved with.
Despite his leadership in communal sustainability efforts, Riesing was someone who could not be defined by a couple interests. Late into his 70s and early 80s, he was avidly learning new skills and hobbies, like African dance, animal tracking, and the ins and outs of energy medicine.
His versatility and intelligence stood out to those around him. Ron Margolis, who came to know Riesing when they served on the board of Durango Natural Foods, said Riesing was someone who was constantly working to better himself, which is difficult to find in someone in the latter stages of life.
In many ways, Riesing’s life in the Durango-area was a second or third life. He seemed to specialize in recreating himself.
Riesing was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1937. His father worked for Goodyear, the tire company, and shortly after Riesing’s birth, relocated the family to the suburbs of Detroit, where Riesing grew up. For college, Riesing attended the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. After graduation, Riesing served as a navigator in the Air Force for six years, from around 1960-66, said his wife, Mindy Iris.
Margolis speculated Riesing learned the discipline that became so important for his ability to reinvent himself and his long battle against cancer while in the Air Force.
Upon completing his service, Riesing attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a doctorate in economics. He taught for a short time at Harvard University before moving onto Wall Street, where he worked for 20 years.
However, true to the way he lived, Riesing marched to his own drum while on Wall Street. Iris referred to him as “the vegetarian on Wall Street” as opposed to The Wolf of Wall Street.
In the late 1980s, Riesing and his wife at the time bought land in La Plata Canyon, intending for it to be a vacation home. However, in the late 1990s, he moved to Durango full time. Around the time of his move to Durango is when Riesing first learned about permaculture, a regenerative agriculture practice, and he dedicated his land to Oakhaven Permaculture Center.
“Typical to Tom, he dove in deeply and studied deeply,” Iris said. Iris compared his devotion to learning about farming to the devotion it took to write his dissertation while at MIT.
Immersion in environmental sustainability was quite different than a career on Wall Street, but it was transformations like these, and Riesing’s ability to become an expert in any topic, that made him special.
Tim Wheeler, who became friends with Riesing through their work together, said, “The way he remade himself was really remarkable. ... The last 20 or 25 years of his life were a constant remaking of who he was, based upon his interest. That’s a testament to someone who never wanted to stop learning. Maybe that’s his real legacy, it’s not over till it’s over. There’s always something more you can learn.”
Jim Dyer, the director of Healthy Community Food Systems, said his unique ability to live each day with purpose was supported by the constant energy he brought to his life. Dyer said he always had a project in the works and “just kept working to better the world.”
“He was certainly an inspiration for me,” Dyer said.
When Riesing was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2013, it was his energy and passion for life that allowed him “to beat the odds for an awfully long time,” as Wheeler said. According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is 9%.
Riesing met Iris shortly before his diagnosis in 2013 and his ability for reinvention as well as his openness to new ideas were what drew her to him.
“He could be as diverse as living in Manhattan to living in the 8,500-foot altitude of La Plata Canyon growing figs and persimmons and being a Nia dancer. ... He was constantly willing to explore and be open to ideas” Iris said.
To demonstrate the point, Iris recalled the image of a 70-year-old white man in an African dance class. “That was Tom,” Iris said, laughing.
When Riesing learned of his diagnosis, he committed himself to learning as much about his disease as possible and pursued a number of alternative medical treatments. With the same passion he approached everything else in life, Riesing jumped into the study of energy medicine, and Iris said, “I have no doubt it contributed to him living as long as he did with pancreatic cancer.”
During his seven-year battle against cancer, Riesing “recreated himself as a cancer survivor, rather than a cancer patient,” Iris said, as the duo made it their mission to squeeze as much out of life as they could.
Traveling was an important part of their time together. Iris and Riesing spent time together in many places, including Chile, Argentina and Morocco.
“We had carrots to keep us going, to have something besides cancer treatment is what kept us going, is what kept him going,” Iris said.
The couple moved to the Seattle area in 2018 to be closer to treatment for Riesing. After a combination of recreational-vehicle and apartment living, Riesing and Iris discovered a new permaculture co-housing community, Rooted NW, in western Washington. They sold their house in Durango, were living out of an RV and waiting to move into a house at Rooted NW at the time of Riesing’s death last month.
Despite being close to the end of his life, Riesing was enthusiastically finding ways to embed himself in the new community. Wheeler said after a couple years of being out of touch, Riesing contacted him a couple of weeks before his death to revisit some of the work they had done together in the past, to see if he could apply some of it to Rooted NW.
Wheeler said that was typical of Riesing, always optimistically looking forward and identifying ways he could contribute to a community, even if he wouldn’t be there to reap the benefits.
To put it more simply, Riesing died as he lived, “always working for a better world,” Margolis said.