My Dad, Who Made the World Better, Take 3

Tomorrow, Feb. 2, used to be just Groundhog Day to me. Once I keyed into the seasonal festival days celebrated in ancient times, I knew Feb. 2 as Imbolc—a day to take a walk and look for the first signs of spring.

But now it’s forever associated with my dad, who left this world on Feb. 2, 2012. On that day the snowdrops bloomed and the sandhill cranes flew low. I like to think that his spirit took stock of those harbingers of spring—and that they released him to fly away.

It broke Dad’s heart to leave us, and he hated to leave all his wonderful volunteer work behind. Since his retirement he’d launched all kinds of projects. Possibly the hardest thing to give up was his connection with schoolchildren.

You can't see Dad but you can see how the kids looked at him.

You can’t see Dad but you can see how the kids looked at him.

It all started when he began tending the grounds of Cold Spring School, the environmental education magnet, just because it looked like somebody ought to.

Dad doing what came naturally.

Dad doing what came naturally.

Because he took an interest, he eventually found himself in stewardship of the school’s greenhouse. This was a dream come true for him. (I remember many times in my childhood, he would talk about his dream of putting up a greenhouse.) His passion made it easy to engage the classes who came in for units on seeds, soil, and other such things.

Dad showing grade schoolers the wonders of aloe in the greenhouse.

Dad showing grade schoolers the wonders of aloe in the greenhouse.

After he got sick, when confronted with kudos for his volunteering, Dad liked to say, “I was just having fun.”

Having fun on a wet day at Cold Spring School.

Having fun on a wet day at Cold Spring School.

Just looking at these photos again, I’m swamped with sadness.

No one can fill the void he left. But maybe by having our own brand of fun, we can each take up a tiny spot of it. As the days get imperceptibly longer, what can we bring to the earth, to each other?

Photos courtesy of Friends of Cold Spring School.

My Dad, Who Made the World Better

Father’s Day meant a pilgrimage to a few places special to my Dad, who died last year. His handprints are all over this town, but I chose a couple places with personal meaning:

1. Holliday Park, down by the river. Because he used to take the grandkids out into the water with a seine to see what they could catch. Also, he kayaked that river many a time. (Once with me. I was not in the best shape then, and he ended up tying a rope to my kayak and towing me into the wind, all the way back to our put-in place.)


The water is not this muddy and high in my memories of Dad taking the grandkids out. All the rain lately.

2. Holliday Park Nature Center. Just to visit his brick.

We honored Dad with this walkway brick at Holliday Park Nature Center on his retirement.

We honored Dad with this walkway brick at Holliday Park Nature Center on his retirement.

3. A pocket park where he and I picked juneberries. Sweet memory. I picked yesterday in his honor.

In truth, Dad is ghosting about the edges of nearly every blog post I write. I see him in the anonymous man in the Keystone Pipeline protest photo—he used to wear that kind of cap, and he marched for important causes. I see him in Keith Johnson, sharing his passion for the natural world.

And I see him in David Forsell, facing death too soon, knowing that what counts is giving back.

A few months before he died, he received the Hoosier Environmental Council ‘s Land Steward of the Year award for his volunteer work (though “work” is a misnomer—he often said, “I’m just having fun.”) A sampling of his fun:

  • He started a multi-year restoration project to return Indiana State Museum’s Turner Gardens to Indiana native prairie (still going on now).
  • At Cold Spring School, he was “chief gardener” and caretaker of the greenhouse, introducing grade schoolers to the marvels of the garden.
  • He took student groups on rafting trips, and led them on tours of natural places.
  • He spearheaded Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society’s Letha’s Youth Outdoors Fund, funding field trips to get schoolchildren out into nature.
My dad at the kitchen sink. You can't tell but he's wearing his favorite "Life is Good" Shirt, the one with the dog wearing the backpack.

My dad at the kitchen sink in 2010. Strong as an ox. You can’t tell but he’s wearing his favorite “Life is Good” shirt.

Now and then my mail brings evidence of his impact, and it always makes me happy and sad. Two examples:

From Friends of Cold Spring School: The fifth-graders have adopted the prairie he led students in planting around “Mr. Donovan’s Greenhouse.”

From Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society: At Dad’s urging, a Gary-area nonprofit working with urban youth applied for funds to visit the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore—a wild place largely unexplored by these kids (who live less than a mile away!). The funding allowed 40 young people to experience the beauty of this national park.

I remember when he met these folks and encouraged them to seek funding. It was at the Hoosier Environmental Council luncheon where he received the award. He was quite frail by then, but still networking, still advocating for kids and nature. It didn’t matter that the title of INPAWS “Youth Outreach chair” had long since passed to someone else.

That’s my Dad to a T. Sure do miss him.

Addendum: I forgot to include this recent piece published in the Boiler Journal, describing a day soon after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.