A Lifetime of Memories by Mary Kopecky

50 Stories for 50 Years

is presented by New Leader Manufacturing

Mary has served many roles at ICNC including artist-in-residence.

I have been involved with the Nature Center for over 40 years, but one memory that sticks out is a golden afternoon in October. It was about 2000 and I was a 4th grade teacher. My class was studying Iowa history, and we had studied how Iowa was once covered in prairies. We had learned how a prairie ecosystem became a rarity once European settlers plowed the prairies for farm fields. As a special treat at the end of the unit, I had arranged for the class to have a work day at the Nature Center collecting prairie seeds. The kids loved it. The weather was as perfect as the best days of October can be, and they let off some steam running wild through the tawny grass and crouching low to hide from each other. We spent a couple hours zipping the ripe prairie grass seed from the stalks and putting it in brown paper bags. The seed would be mixed with sand and sewn in areas where new prairie was being established. We felt happy, useful and engaged.  I remember the day as one where there was a lot of smiling and laughing and not a single issue of behavior. Oh, if the classroom could always be in such a place! 

Mary used her willow weaving skills to create play structures for ICNC’s outdoor classroom that children will enjoy for years to come.

That day was a success for me in another way, too. I wanted the kids to love the Nature Center the way I had come to love it over the decades. My own introduction to the Nature Center started before it was the Nature Center. I was fortunate enough to have a free range childhood on a property that was an easy trespass onto what would be nature center lands.  An ideal day for me was to climb our back fence and explore the woods, creek and sand prairies that existed between Mt Vernon and Otis Roads. I felt as if the whole area was my personal playground, which of course it was not. But on those childhood roamings I learned the names of plants and birds and became deeply enamored of and connected to the outdoors.

It was only natural that once the Nature Center came to be that I would continue to love its land. Over so many decades of experiencing the Nature Center, I have seen so many transformations — good and bad. Sadly, many areas were transformed by the destructive nature of invasive species. Wildflower patches I once knew are gone. On the plus side, I have been thrilled to see the reintroduction of prairie, and the transformation of the Bena farm back to its native state. I was the Board president the year the Lynch wetland was installed — a wetland that would have naturally occurred before the land was altered for agriculture. 

Mary has volunteered in nearly every capacity at ICNC including delivering wreaths at Nature’s Noel.

My first experience volunteering was helping then naturalist Barb Binhammer with a summer school group. Since that experience decades ago, I have volunteered at pretty much every event the Nature Center offered. I help with land projects as a Wednesday Warrior. I am a part of the Friends of the Nature Center group, and I am the most proud of my time as a member of that group. Together we make a financial difference with our sales and we know we are helping the Nature Center create programming for children.

Another fond memory is my time as the Artist in Residence. I was given the use of the Penningroth Barn sunroom as my studio space, and for two years, I taught willow basketry and garden art to many eager students. It was a lot of fun.

I never get tired of taking a hike at the Nature center, and I hope I can continue for many years to come. When I think of the future of the Nature Center, I hope it will remain a place of land restoration. So many people find solace hiking on the land as I do. I also hope it remains a place of education so that many, many children can have a golden October afternoon just like my students did so many years ago.

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Beautiful! Mary’s words, like her, are a treasure. Few people have had such a longtime, broad and deep level of participation and commitment at ICNC as Mary, and she still has plenty of energy for what’s to come!


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