BB Stamats and Jean O’Donnell were visionaries who brought the nature center concept to Iowa. They assembled a steering committee of volunteers who formally created the new nonprofit in early 1973, guided by John Ripley Forbes of the Natural Science For Youth Foundation.
Curt Abdouch was hired as the first director. He moved to Cedar Rapids from Omaha and oversaw the renovation of the former Penningroth Barn and completed an amazing array of start-up needs that included developing a positive relationship with school districts, founding the teacher-naturalists and Guild, creating trails, establishing public programs, formalizing operating procedures and promoting the Nature Center.
When he left in early 1978 Barb Binhammer (later Perkinson) served as interim director until I arrived to take the position in August of that year. I remained in the position for 36 years and had the good fortune to help the Nature Center progress.
How ICNC Changed During My Tenure
Below is a list of changes that I saw during my tenure:
- Stature: When I arrived, few in the community understood the role of a nature center and its benefits. By the time I left, many could not conceive of a community lacking a nature center. I believe I had a key role in professionalizing the organization and making it visible and essential.
- Funding: I arrived at an organization with shaky hand to mouth funding. I left it in a stronger and more stable financial position, including the establishment and growth of an endowment.
- Programming: Curt Abdouch did a great job establishing school groups and public programs. I built on these and made such program changes as expanding school and youth programs, establishing new public programs, and initiating the Maple Syrup Festival and other events that continue today. Attendance steadily grew.
- Marketing and media: I set a goal to expand environmental education to the broad community via the media, which was free. For many years the Nature Center instituted a positive environmental message that appeared about twice a week on area TV stations or The Gazette.
- Land: I led the purchase or gifting of several pieces of land and negotiated better leases with the City of Cedar Rapids. I helped establish and promote ecological restoration and conservation easements.
Major Changes in ICNC Over the Years
A few of the major changes between the early 1970s and today include:
- Major expansion of land ownership.
- Renovations to the former Penningroth Barn and construction of Amazing Space.
- Enormous increase in staff. In its early years the staff was small and all were generalists doing whatever was needed. Today the larger staff is more specialized.
- The Nature Center evolved from a novelty to an essential part of our region as a pacesetting organization.
- Establishment of the Association of Nature Center Administrators (ANCA) and the expansion of the cultural nonprofit scene in Cedar Rapids. The founding of the Hall-Perrine and Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundations provided new sources of funding and helped professionalize the nonprofit community and its boards and staff.
Continued educational innovation, such as the preschool founding.
- Successful leadership succession.
How ICNC Relates to the Land and How It Has Changed
The Nature Center began with a lease on 110 acres and the Penningroth Barn. Grasslands were dominated by exotic invasive plants, oaks were not reproducing in woodlands, and Indian Creek suffered (and still does) from development upstream that creates runoff. Over the years the Nature Center negotiated ever more appropriate leases of land, purchased the former Bena farm and home and other land, facilitated the purchase of Věčný Woods, and was gifted Grandon and Allsop land.
The Nature Center introduced ecological restoration to the region by restoring prairies, wetlands and oak woodlands. These concepts were often politically resisted but have now become mainstream.
The Nature Center has been a long-term advocate of energy efficiency, renewable energy and construction techniques that reduce stormwater runoff. These methods address global environmental issues. The land has changed over the years, generally becoming more ecologically healthy. The Center has witnessed the re-establishment of deer, wild turkeys and river otters.
The Center is a leader in trail development and completed the application process for the Sac & Fox, Cedar Greenbelt and Matsell Bridge County Trails to be declared National Recreation Trails.
What I’m Most Proud Of
Of the many accomplishments I am proud of, perhaps most significant is my 36 years interacting with staff, visitors, volunteers, donors and others in a fair, respectful, friendly and ethical manner. I believe my years of hard work, honesty and compassion are a
significant key to the organization’s success. My philosophy of management also brought the Dillon Nature Center, where I had previously worked, from a shaky to a solid organization.
I’m humbled that I always enjoyed the support, encouragement, and patience of my wife, Marion, and my children Dan and Nancy. Without them I would not have been as fortunate and successful in my career.
I am honored to have met and worked with Rich on several projects thoughout the years during my tenure with the Cedar Rapids Parks Department. Rich was always up for an Eagle Scout project, innovative development and an enlightening philosophical discussion. He is truly a treasured citizen and good friend. All my best to Rich and Marion, always.
I was so fortunate to work with Rich during his tenure at the Nature Center and when I was president in 1997 he guided me through an amazing year of otters. Rich has become a true friend and fellow outdoors man. The Nature Center is so fortunate to have had his expertise. Cheers, to Rich and Marion!