Jay Townsend turned red in a hurry at his wedding reception.
His younger brother, a microphone-toting Jack, had just started reading a love letter that Jay wrote to his future wife, Elise Madrick, more than a decade earlier when the two were high school sweethearts at Zionsville Community High School in central Indiana.
“I threw that letter out because my printer ran out of ink,” recalls Jay Townsend, now 29 and an Evanston resident since 2018, the year he got married. “I might have been 17 when I wrote it.
About half of the letter was readable. Jack grabbed it out of the trash can and kept it for all those years. What he read to all those people at the wedding reception was sappy.
“I was pretty embarrassed.”
Jay Townsend, the newlywed, turned angry—he saw red this time—and crestfallen whenever he found himself near Lake Michigan. He noticed trash here.
Spotted more trash over there.
Trash was … everywhere.
“I don’t remember ever seeing trash along Lake Michigan’s shoreline when I grew up and spent time with Elise and her family in Traverse City, Michigan,” says Townsend, who, like Elise, is an Indiana University graduate.
“Lake Michigan was my happy place. I proposed to Elise near it in South Haven, Michigan. It’s still my happy place. But it was upsetting to me, seeing all that shoreline pollution after we moved to Evanston.
“ S o m e of my best memories are those when I’m around good people and beautiful places. To me, anywhere close to Lake Michigan is a beautiful place.”
If it sounds like Townsend—a former Eli Lilly and Company senior financial analyst and the graduate manager for the Northwestern University men’s basketball program in the 2017-18 season—would do anything he could to return Lake Michigan and its vast shoreline to their pristine conditions, you’re hearing clearly.
To w n s e n d launched North Shore Vibe in October 2020.
Its mission: “To protect Lake Michigan and the wonders of Chicago’s North Shore through activities, events, and cleanups that give as much as we get from these amazing destinations.”
North Shore Vibe’s 2021 goal, via beach cleanups from Lake Forest to Evanston, is to remove 20,000 pieces of trash.
The number of pieces Townsend and his organization’s members had picked up through June 14: 13,424.
The women’s volleyball team at Lake Forest College hit the Lake Forest Beach for a North Shore Vibe cleanup in May.
“You want a staggering number?” Townsend says. “The Rochester Institute of Technology estimated that nearly 22 million pounds of plastic enter the Great Lakes each year. Twenty- two million pounds. Can you believe that? And the Great Lakes provide drinking water for 40 million people.”
North Shore Vibe also holds events that celebrate the beauty of Lake Michigan and sells eco-conscious gear and apparel, with 5 percent of all proceeds going to the Alliance for the Great Lakes and other environmental organizations. North Shore Vibe Paddle Festival attendees will gather at Lloyd Beach in Winnetka on August 7.
Townsend was offered a position with the Denver Nuggets of the NBA after earning a master’s degree in sports administration at Northwestern. The men’s basketball program at Bethel University in Mishawaka, Indiana, wanted Townsend to coach Pilots.
Plum jobs, no doubt. But Townsend and his wife—Elise is the senior manager and academic director for the Kellogg Nonprofit Executive Education Group—chose to stick around Evanston in mid-2019. The lure of Lake Michigan was too powerful.
Jay Townsend then worked with a consulting firm for a little more than a year.
“Elise and I love the community,” Townsend says. “As soon as we decided to stay here, my thinking was, ‘Why not start something that focuses on Lake Michigan?’ Evanston, alone, has seven or eight beaches. North Shore Vibe is all I do now, but Elise is the brains behind the operation. She has been tremendously supportive every step of my journey. Here I am, seven or so years removed from college, and I’m already in my fourth career.”
Townsend’s mother, Ruth Ann, was in her 40s when she decided to pursue her dream job: kindergarten teacher.
“Her story is a really cool one,” says Townsend, whose father, Alan, has been an attorney at the same firm for 30 years. “I’ll never forget the week our family (Jay also has an older sister, Aja) had to spend in a one-bedroom hotel room after an ice storm. We’d lost all of our power at home. There my mother was, studying at night for her teacher exam in our hotel room. I admired her decision to follow her dream.
“You could say I’m doing that with North Shore Vibe.”
Townsend was a 16-year-old and a high school soccer player/basketball player when he and Elise, then 15, went on their first date.
“We had a romantic dinner in a booth at Applebee’s,” says Townsend, a 6-foot-2, 140-pound state champion center back in soccer in his senior season. “Second date? I stepped it up in class. Took her to Ruby Tuesday for dinner.”
Moments later he turns serious.
“My wife is beautiful, fun, and funny,” Townsend says. “But she’s not just my wife; she’s my best friend as well.”
Their “COVID” dog is a 1-year-old Bernedoodle named Boone. On the North Shore Vibe website there’s a picture of the three of them traversing along a Lake Michigan beach. Jay and Elise are smiling in the image. A leashed Boone is panting. Or maybe he’s smiling, too.
The sky is blue. So is the water.
North Shore Vibe immaculate.
“I want kids to have positive memories of Lake Michigan, like I do,” Townsend says. “I’ll never stop appreciating the beauty of the lake and its beaches. There’s a passion from North Shore residents to make the community a better place.
“Together, we can protect our environment for generations to come.”
Visit thenorthshorevibe.com for more information, to sign up for events, or to shop for apparel.