Heart of winter helps us value community treasures

This column originally appeared in the Feb. 4, 2016, issue of the Portage County Gazette. Like that week, this one had a big snowstorm, but the column is appropriate for other reasons. As I keep archiving my old work, my appreciation grows for our friends who helped build the community into what it is. The local history represented by the Zimmermans and Bev Laska is significant, especially when it comes to places like Schmeeckle Reserve and the Green Circle Trail.

Ron and Donna Zimmerman

Tuesday’s snowstorm was a big block party that brought all the neighbors out for a fiesta of snowblowers and shovels. There were almost as many folks out on the sidewalks as we can see on our  way back from downtown summer festivals.

Observing everyone simultaneously taking care of our city-owned sidewalks is just one more reminder of the good Midwestern community ethos we have here.  It’s also a fine time to recognize some folks who have made Portage County a wonderful place in which to live.

Zimmermans not slowing down 

Visiting with Ron and Donna Zimmerman is like the best kind of snowfall.  Stories start drifting down around you.  You can just sit back and take it all in; next thing you know, you look up and you’re buried in wonderland.

I spent a couple of hours talking to the longtime University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point naturalists at their home east of Polonia recently. “Naturalists” doesn’t nearly do justice to their collective accomplishments and careers, but it might be the easiest way to describe the two of them together.

Donna, trained in landscape architecture and retired at the end of 2015 from UWSP’s Division of Interior Architecture, and Ron, for 36 years the only director Schmeeckle Nature Reserve ever had, are a pair of easy-going conversationalists who came to Stevens Point as undergraduate students and never really left – despite a good bit of both hitchhiking and jet-setting  in the ensuing years.

They’ve collected plenty of experiences along the way, including a bunch that makes for excellent stories about the place they call home.

That’s particularly appropriate in Ron’s case, because much of his work as director of Schmeeckle involved environmental and cultural interpretation, a line of communication that helps visitors and others understand the important meanings of places and things.

Among Ron’s accomplishments was leading a Schmeeckle staff that brought in more than a million dollars in consulting fees and grants for working with the State of Illinois on Route 66 interpretive exhibits.  More fascinating than the money is the tales Ron can tell.

For instance, without really trying too hard, he helped convince singer-songwriter Bobby Troup to grant Illinois the rights to use the song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” as part of the exhibits – for free, no less.

Ron and Donna married at 20 after getting to know each other while on double dates, although not as each other’s dates.  The relationship changed when Ron led her on her first hitchhiking trip, to Madison.

Ron, the son of an itinerant farmer who moved around the Midwest, had come to UWSP sight unseen to study wildlife management; his first view of it was when he got to class, he says. Donna was the daughter of a Milwaukee businessman who was none too thrilled with Ron in the courting stages – nor for the first couple of years after his daughter married Ron.

The earliest months of their marriage were spent in a sheet-metal-covered log cabin near Jordan Pond, where snow blew into the house in the winter and they foraged for edible plants to supplement the large bags of rice they’d buy for food.

They tell stories of a Russian visitor spooked by Halloween at the Zimmerman place and Ron’s time in the military, when he drew extensive attention from military intelligence agents – but this column only has so much space.

Donna’s parents eventually warmed to Ron. She got her master’s in landscape architecture at Madison.  Ron moved through the ranks at the Central Wisconsin Environmental Station to become director there (the Zimmermans now live very near to Sunset Lake). He became Schmeeckle’s first full-time employee as director in 1979.

The reserve was once about half its current size and has never been the beneficiary of much direct state funding, so Ron and the staff he eventually built developed their own fundraising. 

That includes a sign-making business onsite that provides not only the beautiful wooden park signs seen all over Portage County, but virtually all over the country.

Schmeeckle-made sign at the Central Wisconsin Environmental Station

The reserve’s interpretation-consulting business has also done very well, and Ron says he followed the old maxim “hire good people and stay out of their way.”

He and Donna realized it was probably a good time to go during UWSP’s recent early-retirement offering to many long-term employees. That was in part because they realized that there are so many more things they’d like to do.

Among them is a spring jaunt to New Mexico, and perhaps the Route 66 town of Amarillo, as well as Sedona, Arizona.  And the Platte River in Nebraska, where the Sandhill cranes gather in impressive flocks, and perhaps Mustang Island State Park in Texas – all on one trip.

But they’ll be back in time for a spring burning of the replanted prairie on their property, an event they take part in with several neighbors as part of an annual clearing process to help maintain the land’s health. 

They have stacks of books to read and living-room fires to enjoy, a dog to walk and wildlife to observe in the nearby state wildlife area.  Snowshoeing .  Cross-country skiing on trails connected in series on neighboring properties.  A continuation of summer visits with grandchildren from their sons Noah and Chad, who live in Milwaukee and Lawrence, Kansas, respectively.  They’ll  camp and hike with the grandkids in national parks throughout the country.

They definitely won’t be stopping their contributions to the environment and our enjoyment of it. Donna is a certified Master Naturalist (a UW Extension program) and an avid fan of groups like the Raptor Education Group; she gushed about that group on Facebook after it rehabilitated and released a bald eagle rescued by a kayak group Donna was in this past summer.

Ron’s already talking about continuing work with interpretation.

“We’re working on 10 scenic byway master plans for the State of Iowa right now,” he says of Schmeeckle. “I shouldn’t say we, because I’m no longer part of the staff, but I’ll probably go back and help them with those things later.”

Both Zimmermans credit the entire community for supporting Schmeeckle, as well as other local treasures like the Green Circle Trail.

 “I had to be here for 40  years before I realized it – I always thought people were giving me lip service when they’d say, ‘The reason I took my position here was because of the Schmeeckle Reserve and because of the Green Circle Trail.’ I always thought they were telling me what they thought I wanted to hear,” Ron says. “But I heard that so many times in the last 10 years that I realized it is really true.

“A lot of people are really sincere that the lifestyle and the recreational opportunities close the deal for them.”

Laska’s retirement also notable 

Speaking of the Green Circle Trail, the longtime president of the Green Circle board of directors, Bev Laska, also retired from Sentry recently and simultaneously finished her term in the trail group.

Incoming president Nick Schultz had high praise for Laska’s work.

“Bev brought a skillful blend of leadership, vision and attention to detail to the volunteer Green Circle Committee,” says Schultz, adding that Laska’s promotion of the trail everywhere from Facebook to Discover Wisconsin has raised the profile of the Green Circle.

“Bev expanded and streamlined the annual giving campaign. More people appreciate and are aware of the need to maintain and develop the Green Circle.”

Several boardwalk segments were widened, trailhead kiosks were built, and additional property for the trail acquired during Laska’s tenure as well.

Cross-country loop on the Plover River segment, Green Circle

Schultz takes over in the trail’s 20th anniversary year, and she says several activities are planned to lead up to June’s Walk Wisconsin event, the trail’s largest annual public happening.

Schultz, a frequent trail user herself, says her favorite trail activities may be enjoying fall color on the western trail spur near the former Jackson Elementary School and cross-country skiing near the eastern river segment of the trail.

She adds that she’s humbled to join community visionaries who preceded her on the committee, including Laska, Roy Menzel, George Rogers and John Jury.

Like the Zimmermans, Schultz believes the trail is an irreplaceable part of the county.

“We’ve described it as a community treasure,” she says. “It really is a big part of who and what we are.”


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