Farmers and friends remembered Russell Libby, a pioneer in the state’s organic farming movement, as a wise and driven leader at a memorial event Sunday.

Libby, who died last month at age 56 from cancer, was the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s executive director for 17 years.

He is credited with building the group into the nation’s largest state-level organic growers association.

Barbara Damrosch, the association’s board president, told the 200 attendees that Maine’s organic farming movement owes its success to Libby’s leadership.

“He steered the ship like a sailor who knew every tide,” she said. “The ship is still on course, thanks to Russell.”

Heather Spalding, who took over as interim director when Libby died, said he could be counted on for guidance.

“And when he had to give us some difficult feedback, he always did it with such grace,” she said.

Those in attendance at the memorial, held at the association’s Common Ground Education Center, also were given a chance to speak to the crowd and share memories of Libby.

He was remembered as a great leader who had a sense of purpose. People said he was known for his laugh. Others remembered how much he loved children.

A few people said they remembered him as a competitive person by nature who liked having the last word in every discussion.

Toward the end of board meetings, association members said, he would push to finish quickly and start the potluck meal they always held.

The association has set up an endowment in Libby’s honor. Spalding said the endowment already has received $30,000 in donations that will help the group continue to function with less reliance on grants.

Theresa Secord, executive director of the Maine Indian Basket Makers Alliance, presented Spalding with a basket as a memorial to Libby.

She said about 10 years ago, her group considered ending its participation in the Common Ground Country Fair, run by the association, but Libby persuaded her not to.

“He personally came to our office and encouraged us not to quit,” she said.

Bennet Konesni, of Belfast, told the crowd that he didn’t know Libby as well as others at the event, but he remembered Libby as a person who could look to the future but keep the past in mind.

“It makes sense, in this community, that he would be a leader,” Konesni said.

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Kaitlin Schroeder can be contacted at 861-9252 or at:

kschroeder@mainetoday.com