When Richard "Dick" Thomas of Worth passed away in December at the age of 82, the Forest Preserve District was not alone in mourning the loss of this dedicated volunteer who spent thousands of hours assisting nature.
Two Cook County-based nature organizations – Lake Katherine and Orland Grassland – also felt a big loss due to the time and effort the retired Reavis High School biology teacher spent helping their natural areas thrive.
As a result of his incredible passion for nature and the many years he spent volunteering his time and efforts, all three organizations will honor Thomas this year during workdays dedicated to his memory.
April 22 – Lake Katherine
Lake Katherine Nature Center and Botanic Gardens in Palos Heights will host an event in Thomas' memory at 10 a.m. on Monday, April 22, in the area called the children’s forest. People who worked with Thomas will speak about his commitment to the site.
“And we will follow up with a dedication of a trail, bench and some native plantings,” said Gareth Blakesley, director and chief naturalist at the site. “It also coincides with Earth Day, (so) one of the plantings will be a bur oak tree.”
The plantings will be followed by a reception inside the clubhouse.
“We are honoring Dick because he had such a profound impact on people’s lives and the environment at Lake Katherine,” Blakesley said in an email. “He worked for me for over 10 years and was diligent and hardworking. He was a mentor to many, an avid conservationist, plain-spoken and will be missed by us all.”
April 27 – Orland Grassland
The Orland Grassland Volunteers organization will dedicate its Earth Day workday to Thomas. The workday will take place from 9 a.m.-noon Saturday, April 27, at the Tinley Park site, which is part of the Forest Preserves of Cook County.
“We are going to change our kiosk so it is filled with pictures of Dick Thomas, and when we welcome people to the workday, we are going to take a moment to sing his praises,” said Pat Hayes, volunteer site steward.
Thomas was a big part of the creation of Orland Grassland, she added.
“The project has been going on for 15 years, and he was there every step of the way,” she said. “He would participate in workdays with us, and he loved to be involved in our outreach events by providing education to people on a broader range of nature themes.”
Thomas had to be involved in some way, even as he got older, because “it was a part of his being,” Hayes said. He also was a great guy to be around, she added. “He had a sense of humor and was very quick-witted, hardworking and knowledgeable.”
Although he was a veteran volunteer with years of experience, he never overstepped the workday site stewards, she said.
“He was always very gracious and he was there to help volunteers. He was a good guy and a treasure.”
And while Thomas spent many hours at Orland Grassland, Hayes said, “I know his heart belonged to Will County (forest preserves) because he told us that.”
September 28 – Forest Preserve District of Will County
The Forest Preserve will honor the 24 years Thomas spent volunteering with the District during its National Public Lands Day workday from 8 a.m.-noon Saturday, September 28, at Isle a la Cache preserve in Romeoville. A memorial bench purchased by fellow volunteers will be installed at the preserve in his honor.
“Dick was instrumental to the educational component of this workday for 18 years,” said Renee Gauchat, the Forest Preserve’s volunteer supervisor. "He had an incredibly vital role, and he brought out the best in everybody."
When Thomas was asked in October why he volunteered so much of his time to nature, he attributed his dedication to the people he met and the plants and animals he encountered.
“I enjoy the camaraderie of my friends as we see the results of our work to restore and expand natural areas,” he wrote. “We provide beautiful places for people to enjoy nature.”
Gauchat said last year, she and Thomas were discussing ways he could continue to volunteer, even though he was getting older and was having more difficulty navigating the uneven terrain of the preserves as quickly as the younger volunteers. The plan was to have Thomas work with new recruits and volunteer retention.
"He wouldn't want us to be shedding tears over him," Gauchat added. "He would want us to educate the public and welcome new volunteers, showing them what we do and how we do it. And he would want us to encourage them to do it for as long as possible."