In Memoriam: Joanne Denworth, 1938-2024

Joanne Denworth

Staff, alumni, and friends of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council are mourning the loss of one of our earliest and most influential leaders. Joanne Denworth, PEC’s president and executive director for 12 years in the 1980s and ‘90s, passed away March 1 after a prolonged battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 85 years old.

Joanne Denworth with Gov. Bob Casey, Sr. in 1988
Joanne Denworth with Gov. Bob Casey, Sr. in 1988

Raised in western Pennsylvania, Ms. Denworth moved to Philadelphia in 1960 to study law at Penn, where she was one of only a few women in her class. In the 1970s, she ran her own environmental law practice in Philadelphia before serving as an administrative law judge on the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board. 

Ms. Denworth assumed leadership of PEC at a time when it was evolving from a small research- and advocacy-focused entity into an organization with a statewide presence and a wide-ranging portfolio of program and policy work. She was recruited in 1986 by attorney and long-serving PEC board member Joe Manko. 

“Under Joanne’s leadership, we were able to get all kinds of foundation grants as a result of which our staff grew from two or three people to probably 20 people and we took on projects,” Mr. Manko recalled. “She really grew what was initially a very fledgling operation.”

Andrew McElwaine, who succeeded Ms. Denworth as president in 1998, said she was a pivotal figure who transformed PEC into the organization it is today.

“Joanne professionalized PEC,” Mr. McElwaine said. “She organized it thematically in a coherent way and really created a more meaningful brand.”

Joanne Denworth with Sen. John Heinz in 1989
Joanne Denworth with Sen. John Heinz in 1989

After leaving PEC, Ms. Denworth founded and led 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, chaired the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, and joined the administration of Governor Ed Rendell. Ms. Denworth shared PEC’s Curtin Winsor award for lifetime achievement with Mr. Manko in 2007 while serving as senior policy manager for Governor Rendell, who called her “the Joan of Arc of the environmental movement.” 

Colleagues remember her as a focused and determined leader, but also warm and approachable. 

PEC staff in 1996
Joanne Denworth (front right) in 1996 with distinguished PEC alumni including Andy Johnson, Anna Breinnich, Kathy Klein, Ann Marie Healy, Brian Hill, Patrick Starr, Davitt Woodwell, and Robert Hughes

“Joanne had a talent for selecting staff driven to improve the environment and make things happen,” said PEC Executive VP Patrick Starr, one of many environmental professionals who can claim Ms. Denworth as a mentor and friend. The list of staffers hired under Ms. Denworth’s leadership also includes such distinguished PEC alumni as Andy Johnson (William Penn Foundation), Ellen Ferretti (former DCNR Secretary), Brian Hill (Richard King Mellon Foundation, former PEC President), and Davitt Woodwell (former PEC President).

“She gave us each a long leash,” Mr. Starr said, “but she was always interested in strategizing and considering new tactics and approaches. She’d grown up in Somerset County, she knew Pennsylvania from all angles. She was serious and fun at the same time!”

“Joanne Denworth’s career paralleled my own in state government.  She was a constant source of leadership and great ideas and analysis that I relied on often in dealing with the environmental issues facing the Commonwealth,” said former DEP Secretary David Hess. “Her ability to bring people together and find solutions became a hallmark of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council that continues today.”

A celebration of Joanne Denworth’s life is planned for Saturday, April 13, at the Philadelphia Marriott Old City. More information on the memorial service, and an opportunity to share memories and condolences, can be found here.