Monday, March 4, 2024

The Adventure Begins

 As the school year drew to a close in 1972-73, I received a rude awakening: the teaching position I had taken was only temporary, as I was filling in for a teacher on maternity leave. I had not been informed of this during the interview process, and the prospect of losing my job after just one year weighed heavily on my mind. That's when I heard about a summer job opportunity at an Aluminum manufacturing plant just south of Henderson, Kentucky. The plant was looking for someone with a science background to work in their environmental control section, and I decided to apply.

The job turned out to be an interesting experience for me, as it was my first time working in a large industrial facility. At the end of the summer, I was offered a full-time position at the plant, which I accepted. This marked the end of my brief stint as a teacher, as I bid farewell to the classroom and embarked on a new career in industry.

After several years at the plant, I decided it wasn't the right fit for me, and I resigned to pursue other opportunities. That's when I joined a friend in the Real Estate business, opening the first ERA Realty franchise in Kentucky. While at Anaconda and Real Estate, I continued volunteering with the Henderson Audubon Society and Audubon State Park. Both the Society and the Park were in poor condition and in need of more funding. However, they held a rich history, and I was eager to preserve what had been built in the past and try to build a more prosperous future.

It was during my time at the park that I met King Benson, a former schoolteacher who had volunteered as the summer park naturalist for several years. Despite his difficulty walking, King was a wealth of information about the park's natural history. I eagerly accompanied him on various trails to learn about the local flora and fauna. When King decided to retire, he suggested I take his place, which I gladly accepted. In the spring of 1975, I became the naturalist at John James Audubon State Park.

Meanwhile, I also became involved with the Henderson Audubon Society, which had fewer than 100 members at the time. Despite its small size, the society was filled with dedicated members passionate about preserving the area's natural beauty. Two people who stood out to me are Dr. Richard (Dick) Wham, the society's president, and Julian Duffy, a geologist who taught at Henderson Community College. Together, we worked on many projects and shared many laughs. A most memorable experience with Dick Wham was a 10-day canoe trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota. We had a blast planning the trip, and the trip itself turned out to be even more fun than we expected.

Sadly, Julian passed away unexpectedly in his sleep not long after I moved from Henderson to upstate New York in 1982. Despite this loss, I will always cherish the memories of the time I spent with him in the backwaters of Henderson.

In my next post, I will detail some projects I worked on at Audubon State Park and with the Henderson Audubon Society.

Thank you for reading, and cheers to preserving the natural beauty around us!

Friday, March 1, 2024

The Foundation Upon Which I Worked

Instead of launching right into “I did this, and I did that,” I thought it important to start by posting about who else “did this and that” and built the foundation upon which I worked. Secondly, I want readers to know that although this blog is called My Audubon Adventures, it was not the “Audubon Society” that built the foundation. For that matter, it was not even John James Audubon. “Audubon” is a conservation movement and the foundation upon which I stood was built by many individuals across the country who cared about birds, nature, and the conservation of natural resources. I felt then and now that my job is to motivate people to become more closely connected with nature and sustainable natural resource management.

Through this blog, I intend to tell the story of how and why I chose to do what I did over a 50+ year career and talk about successes and failures along the way.

Henderson, Kentucky, was and is full of businesses and organizations that include the word “Audubon” in their titles and branding. So, it seemed to me that Henderson must be a bird-friendly town as often as the name Audubon is used. And I thought if the town is bird-friendly, it must be a conservation-minded community.

Instead of focusing on John James Audubon and his family as my main research project, I should focus on the history of the Henderson Audubon Society and the history of John James Audubon State Park, particularly since I had been elected to serve as Vice President of the Society and was spending a lot of time at the park.

I saw myself as a teacher who focused on nature and environmental education. But, now that I was no longer a classroom teacher, I needed to define what I would teach and to whom I would teach it. So, my first step was to discover how the Henderson Audubon Society came into existence and the organization’s main mission. Since Audubon State Park seemed to be the “main Audubon place,” I also needed to look into the park’s history.

I discovered that, to a great degree, the Henderson Audubon Society and Audubon State Park had much in common. That was not necessarily John James Audubon, but one local woman who had an unbelievable interest in John James Audubon and his art.

Susan Starling Towles: A Woman Ahead of Her Time

Susan Starling Towles was a remarkable woman who lived an extraordinary life. Born on a farm a few miles south of Henderson, KY, on October 11, 1861, she was a nervous, studious child who loved reading. Her mother recognized her daughter's talents and educated her at home until she attended Central School.

After graduation, Susan became a teacher and eventually the principal of Henderson Seminary, a private school for girls. But her life took a new turn in 1903 when she was asked to become the librarian of the Henderson library. Despite hesitating, Susan accepted the challenge and traveled to Washington, D.C., to learn the Library of Congress cataloging system. In 1904, the Henderson library opened with 500 books.

Susan's passion for education and civic engagement extended beyond the library. She was a member of the Henderson Audubon Society (Founded in 1898 as the first Audubon Society in Kentucky), working tirelessly with other civic leaders to establish the John James Audubon State Park and Museum, securing many of Audubon's paintings in the process. As president of the Civic Improvement Society in 1903, Susan and her colleagues planned the riverfront chain of parks. She was also a member of the General Hopkins chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a communicant of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, a life member of the Women's Club, a member of the Century Club, and an organizer of the Society of Transylvanians.

Susan's memoir, in which she said, "Mine has been a busy life with many dreams and much fulfillment," perfectly encapsulates her incredible journey. Despite the limitations placed on women during her time, Susan's tireless dedication to education, community service, and the arts made her a trailblazer and role model for future generations.

John James Audubon State Park is a historical landmark in Henderson, Kentucky, just south of the Ohio River. It is named after John James Audubon, the famous ornithologist, naturalist, painter, and slave owner who lived in Henderson from 1810 to 1819 when it was still a frontier village. The park, which covers 650 acres of land, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 and is dedicated as a state nature preserve by the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves.

In 1934, the Wolf Hills area in Henderson was selected for a new state park, and a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) base Camp Cromwell was established nearby. Over the next four years, the CCC drained swamps, built two lakes, and developed trails and roads, while the Works Progress Administration (WPA) constructed the park shelters, the Tea House (which is now the park office), and the Audubon Museum using local stone and millwork.

The park could have been smoother sailing, with delays caused by a lack of funds and disagreements over its focus. However, with the help of Gibney Oscar Letcher, a Henderson attorney, and businessman, progress was made among the CCC, WPA, National Park Service, Kentucky Department of Parks, local contractors and suppliers, the Audubon Park Committee, and the Audubon family descendants. The Tea House was completed in June 1940 and served three meals daily until December 1941. The cottages were completed in the spring of 1941, and the recreational lake was excavated and filled. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Kentucky and the nation prepared for war. Camp Cromwell was converted into a Naval Cadet Aviation Training School during the war and supervised by Evansville College (presently the University of Evansville).

After World War II, attention returned to the park. From 1948 to 1955, a restoration and construction program was carried out, including construction of a new museum and nature center. From 1960 to 1969, another $500,000 was invested in the park by constructing a camping area and a nine-hole golf course. Additional land was acquired, bringing the park to nearly 700 acres.

Today, the park boasts the Audubon Museum, which proudly displays one of the world's largest collections of original Audubon art that made the wildlife artist a legend. The museum's four exhibit halls chronicle Audubon's life, including his 1810–1819 residence in Henderson, Kentucky, with personal artifacts and memorabilia that portray his often-difficult life.

John James Audubon State Park is a historical landmark and a nature lover's paradise. It is one of three state parks in Kentucky that will be in the path of totality for the 2024 total solar eclipse. It is a must-visit destination for those who appreciate art, history, and nature.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Congratulations for What?

“Hi Ron, congratulations.” That was the greeting I received as I stepped out of my car for an evening meeting of the Henderson Audubon Society in the autumn of 1974 that was being held at the home of Frank Stanonis. I responded with “Hi” but in my head, I said, “congratulations for what?”

                                                My Last Year as a Classroom Teacher

While we had moved to Henderson because I accepted a teaching job at Henderson City High School, I spent several months of my free time in 1972 and 1973 exploring the Henderson area and trying to connect with the Henderson Audubon Society. Still, I needed help locating them or anyone that was connected with the organization. Finally, in June 1973, I received a telephone call from Dr. Richard Wham, who was a member of the Henderson Audubon Society, and he told me that there was a meeting of the Society that very evening if I was able to attend. I don’t remember what the evening program was about, but I recall that at the program’s end, someone said that this evening’s meeting was the last meeting for the season and that regular meetings would start again in the Fall. They also said if anyone had ideas or recommendations for programs that might be considered for the next season beginning in the Fall of 1974, please let them know. During the refreshment period, I did mention that I knew someone who was an expert in reptiles and amphibians of the region that would make an excellent speaker and presentation.

The evening meeting at Frank Stanonis’ home was called to order by Richard Wham, who was the newly elected President of the Henderson Audubon Society. Just a few moments after the meeting started, I discovered what I had been congratulated for. I discovered that, without my knowledge, I had been elected (AKA appointed) as Vice President and Program Chair of the Society. That was the first time I realized that just showing up and speaking up can often lead to interesting things happening!

                                     Ivory-billed Woodpeckers by John James Audubon

For those of you who have known me for many years, you might find it hard to believe that in my younger years, I was very introverted and would never even consider speaking in public. My Dad used to say that I was so shy that if I was totally lost somewhere that I wouldn’t even ask anyone for directions. Most of you know that as life moved forward, I managed to get over that issue.

So, that is how I came to be involved with the Audubon Society. I showed up, I suggested a program and there you go! In addition to my search for a local Audubon Society, I was also spending time looking into the history of John James Audubon and his family when they lived in Henderson, which meant that I spent considerable time in John James Audubon State Park. The next few posts will focus on some of my adventures with the Henderson Audubon Society and Audubon State Park.

Till next time,


Monday, February 19, 2024

Why Are You Calling This Blog "My Audubon Adventures?"

 “Why are you calling this blog My Audubon Adventures? It seems to me like you have been involved in many things over the years that didn’t really have anything to do with Audubon.” That was one of the first questions/comments that I got from a family member right after I announced that I was going to work on this blog. The answer is that when I moved to Henderson, Kentucky, I became fascinated with John James Audubon, his family, and art. Then from 1972 until around 2016, I was involved with one Audubon organization or another.

John James Audubon Museum - Audubon State Park

So, it is my opinion that my interest in nature conservation, environmental stewardship, and spreading environmental education around the United States and the globe for nearly 50 years has been both an adventure and, for most of the time, connected in some way to “Audubon.” I have worked with some outstanding mentors and fellow nature advocates over the years. There have been many “high” moments and several “low” moments. I have received various awards for programs that I created, and I have been sued for creating those very same programs. I have been called a hero for some of the environmental education programs that I created, and I have been called an “environmental sellout” for creating those very same programs.

Throughout the years, I have never changed my focus on encouraging people to become more closely connected with nature and to become environmental stewards where they live, work, and play. Mostly I have focused on the conservation and stewardship of water and wildlife.

Common Loon

Through this blog, I want to tell my story. I want to share some of my successes. I want to thank a bunch of people and organizations. I want to poke a few people and organizations in the eyes. In the end, however, it is my hope that readers will become inspired to become more connected with nature and become active environmental stewards where they live, work, and play.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

The Adventure Begins

It was a hot August 1972 day when the Dodson family made our way into Henderson, Kentucky, to establish our new home location and for me to begin what turned out to be my last year as a classroom teacher.

The Entrance to Audubon Park on U.S. Highway 41

Just after we crossed the Ohio River, we noticed the entrance to John James Audubon State Park on the left, and directly across from the park entrance on the right was an automobile dealership that was also named "Audubon." In just a few short months, I discovered that over 30 businesses and organizations had adopted the name Audubon as part of their titles. But, I also discovered that most of the citizens of the community knew very little about the person that was named Audubon, nor did they appear to appreciate his work and the value that his history in Henderson brought to the community. 

John James Audubon and his dog Zephyur

And so the adventure begins. My interest in nature and conservation had begun years before our move to Kentucky, but finally landing a High School Biology teaching job in Henderson and discovering that John James Audubon and his family had lived in Henderson longer than any other location in America is what I needed to launch what would become my lifelong profession and consume my entire family from then on.

This blog is about the places that "Audubon" has taken us to, the people we have met and worked with, the organizations that I have worked with or started, the fun we have had, and the problems we have experienced, all the while trying to convince people that each of us can make positive contributions to the environment and nature where we live, work and play.

If this sounds interesting, I hope you will follow along. 

The Adventure Begins

  As the school year drew to a close in 1972-73, I received a rude awakening: the teaching position I had taken was only temporary, as I was...