CHARLOTTE -- As a 13-year-old Boy Scout, helping shut down pollutants illegally dumped in a stream led Rick Gaskins to a career in environmental law in Charlotte.
But it took a horrific car crash, three decades later, to steer Gaskins to the job he really wanted -- executive director of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation.
This Earth Day finds many such career shifts among the leaders of Charlotte's environmental and conservation groups. As the groups mature, they're luring established professionals -- lawyers, bankers, business owners -- to a different kind of green.
The career-changers say they like the chance to make lasting differences. They bring sharp skills, fresh perspectives and credentials that landowners, government agencies and foundations respect.
Gaskins' trajectory: Duke University mechanical engineering degree; Harvard law degree, cum laude; 23-year career that earned him recognition as one of the top lawyers in his field.
Then the crash, three years ago, during a business trip in Colorado. An oncoming SUV crossed the center line. With both vehicles traveling at 70 mph, his tiny, rental Dodge Neon was crushed.
"I'm the titanium man," Gaskins, 49, wryly joked about the surgeries that put him back together. It would be a year before he could return to work.
He had always wanted to advocate for a nonprofit group. "When something like (the accident) happens, it forces you to slow down enough to think about it," he said, "and to do something about it."
Gaskins had experience in community service, including advisory leadership of the Salvation Army in Charlotte. He believed that the problem-solving skills he honed as an engineer and lawyer could help solve thorny environmental problems.
But he worried about the leap from a busy law practice, representing lenders, developers and industries, to a job that pays $30,000 a year.
His family, which includes five children, embraced the idea. Fellow environmental lawyers called to offer their services to the foundation. Gaskins went to work for the group March 1.
He looked happy a few days ago, standing by Lake Wylie in jeans after his first news conference defending the Catawba.
"I feel fortunate to be able to have this kind of job," he said, "and that's the beauty of it."