Ro Vaccaro: The Butterfly Lady

She saved monarch memorabilia the way a mother saves all of her firstborn’s artwork and school assignments. Boxes and boxes of letters, handouts, and newspaper clippings. If it had to do with the monarch butterflies of Pacific Grove, California, Ro Vaccaro put it in a box and kept it.

“I wear a butterfly every day, at least somewhere-but usually multiple butterflies. I have a butterfly watch, butterfly earrings, butterflies on my shoes and socks.”

Ro Vaccaro, the “Butterfly Lady” of Pacific Grove, lived and breathed monarch butterflies.

She came upon her first-in the shape of an exquisite pin-many years earlier, at an estate auction. She picked up the pin and held it in her hand. She was in the middle of a divorce at the time, and she said to her sister, Beverly, “I feel better just holding it.” That was the beginning of a metamorphosis that would transform her life.

But there was a time before the butterflies. In 1987, she was a high-powered secretary at a high-powered law firm in Washington, D.C. But she had been diagnosed with lupus, and her symptoms-joint pain, sensitivity to touch, and depression, to name a few-were flaring. It had gotten so bad she had to wear a brace on her arm and one on her leg just to get around, just to keep on going. The stress was aggravating her symptoms. She worked in a twelve story building, and she was thinking of jumping off.

One day, her sister called. She had just read about the little town of Pacific Grove-aka Butterfly Town, USA-where every year thousands of orange and black monarch butterflies flocked to a little two and a half acre grove and hung there in the eucalyptus trees all winter long. Beverly thought she and her sister should make a pilgrimage.

When they got there in October, the monarchs were just arriving. The two sisters found themselves celebrating the butterflies’ return with the rest of the town at the Butterfly Parade. There were butterflies everywhere. And not just the real, live, fluttering kind. Wooden monarchs of various sizes adorned the town’s stores and even its gas station. Ro bought cookies and cinnamon rolls in the shape of monarch butterflies. She watched the kindergarteners all decked out in their bright orange monarch wings march down the town’s main street. There were baton twirlers and school marching bands. This place, this magical little place, was indeed Butterfly Town, USA.

A year later, they made a second pilgrimage. When Ro looked up into the butterfly trees, she told Beverly that it was like a cathedral. She wrote, “They are nature’s stained-glass windows, flying high between us and the sun.”

“I surprised even myself by sending my letter of resignation by Federal Express. I said ‘Consider my two-week vacation your two week notice. I’m moving to live with the butterflies.’ And I did. As you can see, there’s no brace on my leg, there’s no brace on my arm, and I haven’t wiped this silly grin off my face since I got here.”

One day, Ro learned that Mrs. Diveley, the woman who owned the Butterfly Grove Inn and the land beside it-the enchanted place where the monarchs roosted every year-had been granted permission to develop the butterfly grove. Mrs. Diveley wanted to build houses, and an apartment building. She swore that she had no intent to take down the butterfly trees, that she would build around them. But Ro was dubious. Any change in the microclimate might make the monarchs decide it was no longer fit for their needs.

So she set about to stop Mrs. Diveley.

Ro Vaccaro, the Butterfly Lady, went into the schools and taught the children about the monarchs and their miraculous transformation. She told them about Mrs. Diveley and the houses she wanted to build on the monarchs’ land. She handed out petitions and urged the children to take them door to door and get signatures. The adult contingent of “Friends of the Monarchs” canvassed the town. They needed 6,000 signatures to get it on the ballot-a resolution to stop the development, buy the land, and grant permanent sanctuary to the monarchs.

She and the rest of Pacific Grove’s “Friends of the Monarchs” marched in that year’s annual “Butterfly Parade,” handing out “Vote Yes” flyers. Scholastic Review got wind of the butterflies’ plight and published a cover story about it, and students from all over the country sent letters in support of the monarchs. The story ran on the CBS Evening News, in the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times.

In the end, the citizens of Pacific Grove voted to raise their own taxes. For what amounted to about $30 per person, per year, they purchased that $1.2 million plot of land.

Her last two years as a docent, Ro gave tours of the monarch sanctuary with the assistance of a walker. Then, finally, her body could no longer hold her. On top of lupus, diabetes, fibromyalgia, and emphysema, she had contracted lymphoma. Ro Vaccaro, the Butterfly Lady, moved into a convalescent home.

That November, she secured an all-day pass from the home so she wouldn’t miss a moment of Pacific Grove’s annual “Monarch Madness” family fun day. She refused a chair. She stood all day, happy, talking butterflies.

One day, at the home, she rolled up her sleeve and showed her sister a bruise. It was two inches wide, and in the shape of a butterfly. “I’m so gung ho,” she said, “even my bruises come out like butterflies.”

Ro passed away on Tuesday, January 8th, 2008. A few weeks later, in the grove that she had always described as a cathedral, a small gathering of people, about thirty in all, clustered in a private nook of the monarch sanctuary. They were there to pay their last respects to the Butterfly Lady. It was a warm, sunny day, and the monarchs, just heading into their breeding season, were preparing to take off.

As head docent Sharon Blaziek read the memorial to her friend Ro Vaccaro, the Butterfly Lady, orange and black monarchs lit from the surrounding trees and fluttered and soared behind her for everyone to see.

“The monarchs saved her,” said Ro’s sister. “She was just returning the favor.”