Jean O’Donnell – A Tough Act to Follow

50 Stories for 50 Years

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Jean O’Donnell founded Indian Creek Nature Center, along with her friend BB Stamats, to create a home for environmental education in Cedar Rapids.

Michael “Mike” O’Donnell, son of Jean & Mike O’Donnell (both deceased), was only about seven years old when his mom and BB Stamats founded the Indian Creek Nature Center 50 years ago. Considering that, it’s not surprising that his memories of the early Nature Center years come to him in flashes, such as standing in line at a Maple Syrup Festival when Charlie Rohde showed him how to roll a sausage in a pancake and dip the “log” in syrup. However, Mike does recall that his mom was at a point in her life when “she began doing more active things in the community,” such as participating in Junior League. Jean and BB, good friends and “partners in crime,” started the Cedar Rapids Horse Show about the same time that they founded the Nature Center. At the time he thought of this – “starting things” – as something moms just do, but now he has a different perspective.

The O’Donnell family visiting the Penningroth Barn in 2004.

“I have two girls – Devon, 24, and Luci, 19 – and I try to keep them versed in things my mom did.” Devon and Luci never met Jean, who passed away in 1989 when she was only 53. “It’s great for the girls to see, generationally, what my mom did – starting something that could last this long and be this important fixture in our community. Now it goes on another generation, with Tiffany (his wife, who is mayor of Cedar Rapids). I think the girls have a fairly strong standard in terms of what women can do.” Mike and Tiffany have tried to instill in Devon and Luci that if they set their minds to doing something, they should go for it. “It’s great for the girls to see that (sense of purpose) not just with their mom, but also with my mom. They have tough acts to follow!”

What would Jean think of the Nature Center today? “I can’t think she would imagine where it is or even that it’s still going. It was always this small operation, centered on the (Penningroth) Barn. I don’t think she ever envisioned that the Center would grow like it has, with the land base, the breadth of trails, the programming that’s available, and the (Amazing Space) building. I suspect she and BB started the Nature Center to establish something that would be of interest and benefit for their own kids, as well as for the community.”

Mike O’Donnell with Rich Patterson, who was ICNC Director for 36 years.

Mike feels “tremendous pride” that the Nature Center is part of his family’s legacy. “It’s a great fixture in the community and unique in Cedar Rapids. I’m thankful Rich (Patterson, ICNC director from 1978-2013) always gave credit to my mom and BB, which keeps that legacy alive. Their involvement is now so distant that their historical connection could easily vanish from the narrative. But it hasn’t, for which I am very grateful.”

Mike thinks the Nature Center has its biggest impact with introducing nature to kids. While watching preschoolers from ICNC’s Creekside Forest School head outside, he remarked, “At that age, it’s fascinating for kids to explore nature. And then you get them hooked, and they keep that connection.”

While considering the Nature Center’s future, Mike thinks “the Nature Center is set to last as long as it wants to. I think the hardest part is the fundraising. During Rich’s tenure his biggest worry was having an endowment, and that it grew, which was very visionary. That’s the kind of thing that keeps an organization going permanently. Hopefully people leave money in their wills or estates to the Nature Center. My sister (Ann O’Donnell Ilten) did when she passed, which was nice to be able to do and hopefully more people will.” Ann’s generous investment in the Nature Center’s future is one more part of the growing O’Donnell Family legacy at ICNC, which began with Jean “starting things” 50 years ago.

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • George Brunscheen
    June 28, 2024 7:28 PM

    What a great legacy & a lesson for Devon & Luci! May the history be preserved. Thanks, O’Donnells for keeping it alive.


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