Phil White has served in innumerable capacities at the Nature Center for more than two decades. With his easy-going, personable presence and enthusiasm, he is beloved by the staff, other volunteers, and the generations of children he has taught about nature. Phil is eager to say “yes” and has contributed much of himself and his resources to make ICNC a better place. Phil and his wife Laura have been ICNC lifetime members since 2016, and this summer they gifted lifetime memberships to five additional family members.
I think we first came to Indian Creek Nature Center with Boy Scouts. It would have been the early ‘90s as the Boy Scouts leader for our kids when they got started doing some service projects down here. Then we just came out here on hikes and the kids had to come out and wrap their arms around Old Henry (a formerly giant silver maple tree that now nurtures other life as it decays).
We were here at ICNC a lot with Scouts and interested to just see what we could get involved in that was going on, and it was spring, so the first program we volunteered at was the Maple Syrup Festival. I remember coming out here just saying ‘What do you need?’ and, of course, the answer was “clean up.” That was back when we did the syrup in those large ketchup bottles. You snipped off the top and just squeezed it on.
From there, I was teaching some of the Boy Scout programs with Jan Aiels and Margaret Wolter, who were the naturalists at the time, and I started looking at the teacher-naturalist program. They kind of drew me into the naturalist program and then the next year, Margaret got me teaching a lot. I started teaching the maple syrup programs and just continued on with that. I still teach maple syruping programs today, and it’s fun to teach.
One of the things I enjoyed most about teaching was seeing the world through kids’ eyes and being able to show kids things they haven’t seen before, maybe get them to open their minds up a little bit and open their eyes up. In my early days, we did a woodland program, which was my favorite program. I loved it. We taught weather, animals, trees, environment, habitat, and we had a certain curriculum we had to teach to. Watching the kids run around and then having them sit up on the hill with all the pine trees, shut their eyes, and listen to the wind they had never heard before. Here they can get up close and get personal with nature and have a new experience.
When you’re taking a field trip class out on a hike, there are teachable moments. I remember a time when we were over at the prairie by the barn and I was teaching a bee program. I had all these elementary kids and right in the middle of them a mole pops up in the center of the trail. So, we spent ten minutes talking about moles and watching this mole push the dirt out through the hole. It was an experience. I loved it.
‘Fill-in Phil’ was what Jan used to call me. We’re just kind of odds and ends people. When Jan taught, she held a teacher-naturalist training in the spring, and then you’d sign up for summer programs. Then, in the fall, she’d want you to sign up for the entire school year. I’m like, “I’m not signing up three months out.” But I was always ‘Fill-in Phil’ to her. She could call me on a day or two notice and if I was available, I’d come out and do it.
I got involved with Jean Wiedenheft (now ICNC’s director of land stewardship) and did land maintenance, as well. I really enjoyed that she had groups out here that needed leaders cutting grass, cutting trees, and so I started helping her with that. Then just kind of filling in with the little things. Just asking ‘What do you need?’ I like teaching kids. I like working in the woods. So, I did a lot of land maintenance in those days.
The very first project that I helped Jean with was a Girl Scout project where we built a bridge. I came out to help keep the girls going and help them figure out how to put it together.
I also helped take the barn down at Winslow Road in Marion. (This was a 1920s-era barn saved from demolition by landowners Dan Engle and Tim Mooney, who allowed Nature Center volunteers and staff to carefully dismantle it.) I helped Jean recover all that wood to be repurposed in Amazing Space (as seen in the auditorium). I helped her wash it off and scrub it clean. I also helped build the sand table (featured in the Amazing Space exhibit hall) and Laura (Phil’s wife) helped find books for the library inside the exhibit hall.
Then I started making the walking canes the Nature Center sells in the Creekside Shop. After a Spring Plant & Art Sale a vendor gave ICNC the rest of their walking canes at the end of the event — which was really cool, and they sold! A week later, I was helping Jean with a service project — I think it was LinnMar High School kids — and we’re cutting this black locust out of the prairie. Jean mentioned that they made really good walking sticks, and so we had all these high school kids strippng bark off of the sticks. They never got one done, but I took the sticks home and finished them. That was 12 years ago and I still make probably 15 or 20 a year. Those are fun and easy to make.
Tom Cleveland (former ICNC teacher-naturalist and all-around volunteer who passed away in 2022) and I had worked at Rockwell Collins together for 20 some odd years. Then when he retired and started volunteering here it was nice to see a familiar face. He was also huge in the Boy Scouts, but interestingly we didn’t work together there.
When Tom’s family designated Indian Creek Nature Center as a recipient of his memorial gifts, a group of us teacher-naturalists came together and asked ‘What can we do?’ We got together, brainstormed some ideas, and decided the sundial (near the Amazing Space parking lot) would be a fun project in honor of Tom. We ended up putting together a team of about five of us and we figured out the math, what kind of rocks to get, getting bids on materials and how to do it. I even built a model of it in our driveway.
We had the grandkids out at the Nature Center a couple weeks ago and they played with the leopard frogs for over half an hour. There’s not many places they can go out and see frogs and touch frogs. We hiked a mile with the kids, and they loved it.
Education Manager Andria Cossolotto and Senior Naturalist Emily Roediger have done a really good job of getting the programs up and running again after the pandemic and derecho, and seeing the Meet the Animals program expanding is great. We’d really like to see more public kids activities like these at the Nature Center in the future. They want to come down here to swing or play in the water, and then you can get them connected to the land and learning about sustainability.
There’s been a lot of history and many very dedicated, hard-working people in this place from the beginning. Keep going. That’s the biggie. Keep it going.