Husband ‘preserving’ wife’s open space legacy

Steve Yanai donated $25,000 to Moorestown Township to create a parking lot at the preserve named after his wife, Esther.

Photo of Esther Yanai courtesy of Barbara Rich.

Steve Yanai said his wife, Esther, was a courageous and passionate woman who spent 40 years advocating for Moorestown to maintain its open spaces and serving as one of the founding members of Save the Environment of Moorestown. Her efforts were recognized following her passing in 2003 when the township purchased 34 acres of undeveloped land in October 2004 and named the space Esther Yanai Preserve in her honor.

However, with little parking on Garwood Road near the preserve, many residents don’t know the trail is there, and those who do often have to park a block away, Yanai said. For that reason, Yanai donated $25,000 to the township to create a parking lot on Garwood Road in the hope that with a parking lot in place, more residents will frequent the preserve.

Yanai presented the township with the donation at the Monday, Oct. 23, council meeting where Mayor Manuel Delgado thanked him for the contribution. STEM President Joseph Ponessa said as of now the preserve is not well known, but a parking lot could change that.

The preserve has enough parking to support one or two cars. Ponessa said the township already had plans in the works to make improvements to Garwood Road, and Yanai’s donation will enable it to include the parking lot expansion as it moves forward with its plans.

“[STEM] had been talking with the township about providing parking from open space funds for some of the open spaces,” Ponessa said. “I think that this donation played a significant role in jump-starting it.”

Yanai said the preserve is a beautiful but underused space. He said he had heard talk for years of putting in additional parking but never saw any action. Yanai planned to leave STEM money in his will, but he decided that if he donated now, it would kick-start some action. His plan worked, and he said the parking lot will be upgraded in January, which will serve as his wife’s birthday present as she would have been 90 in 2018.

Esther and Steve were married for 47 years. The pair met while Steve, a native of Japan, was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota. Esther was working in St. Paul at the time, and the two met and fell in love, Yanai said. The pair moved to Moorestown in 1958 where they stayed for 45 years.

On Monday, Oct. 23, at Moorestown Town Council, Mayor Manuel Delgado accepted a donation from Steve Yanai. In the photo are: L-R, Steve Yanai, Elizabeth Endres Hines (STEM VP), and Manuel Delgado (Township Mayor). Mr. Yanai gave $25,000 to STEM in honor of his wife, Esther, who was a founding member of STEM. Photo courtesy of: Besty Schnorr

On their first Earth Day in town, Esther started STEM — an organization that is still going strong 45 years later, Yanai said. During her years in Moorestown, Esther and her fellow STEM members took it upon themselves to map all of Moorestown’s open spaces — a project that would take 10 years to complete. The Yanais dedicated an entire room in their house to the project.

Since the beginning, STEM’s mission has been to preserve open space in Moorestown, according to STEM member Barbara Rich.

“No town should be 100 percent developed,” Rich said.

Rich said STEM was the initiator of the town’s open space inventory, and Esther, who was on the planning board at the time, was an inspiration to many in town to participate in the natural resource inventory. As a result of the inventory’s completion in 1988, the township went on to adopt 28 parcels of land to designate as open spaces, Rich said.

In 2003, Esther was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told she had approximately eight months to live. The news didn’t diminish Esther’s adventurous spirit, Yanai said. Two weeks after the diagnosis, Esther decided she wanted to go cross country skiing and ended up skiing five miles. Yanai said his wife was active even in her final months, and her love of spending time in nature endured until the very end.

Yanai said his wife’s enduring legacy was preserving open spaces in Moorestown that weren’t just ball fields but would allow residents to engage in passive recreation such as walks on trails. Esther Yanai Preserve, for instance, features walking trails and a stream for recreationalists to enjoy.

Since his wife’s passing, Yanai has moved to Medford, but STEM has continued to endure.

“It’s been taken over by a younger generation now,” Yanai said. “STEM has been in existence for 45 years, and it’s still going. It’s amazing that this small organization continued for 45 years and is still going.”

During the first week of December, STEM hosts the Esther Yanai Memorial Walk in Esther’s honor. For more information on STEM, visit http://stemonline.org/.