Patterson signs off for good at Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids

Retired director debuts center's new website

Rick Smith
Published: March 20 2014 | 3:30 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:53 am in

CEDAR RAPIDS ó Rich Patterson didnít grow up like most kids. The way he tells it, in fact, it sounds as if he were a little odd.

A significant piece of his coming of age put him in a 100-acre lake out the front door of his rural New Jersey home, conducting his own, one-adolescent research survey of the lakeís pickerel population.

"I think all those fish talked to me: ĎYou ought to be a fish biologist,í" Patterson said.

He is that and much more. And Cedar Rapids and those who came in touch with Patterson in his 35-year run as director of the Indian Creek Nature Center are better and greener for it.

In recent days, he gave up his final formal role with the center ó as a Carhartt-wearing fundraiser for the $7 million capital campaign to build a new Nature Center facility and to beef up its endowment ó and he is now officially retired, with the title of emeritus director.

Patterson and his wife, Marion, prepared for retirement, moving in recent years to a house that backs up to Faulkes Heritage Woods and the Cedar Rapids-Marion border.

"Iím always looking outside, and whenever possible, I am outside," Patterson said. "Iím out there in all kinds of weather.

"Iím out there at night. I love the night. Back in the woods, Iím looking at things, listening."

Patterson, 64, took over as director of the Indian Creek Nature Center in August 1978 after a similar job in Hutchinson, Kan., which he garnered after short wilderness work stints that created stories to tell for a lifetime about fish and bears in Alaska and forests in Idaho. He got the Kansas job with his biology degree and by saying he could try to do three things ó clean things, fix things and raise money.

Raising money and balancing budgets always is a challenge for nature center directors, and it has been at Indian Creek Nature Center, Patterson said.

Nature centers came to be in the aftermath of the first Earth Day in 1970, and Patterson said when he arrived at the Indian Creek Nature Center in 1978 it possessed a strong group of members and volunteers and with plenty of school-aged youngsters who visited the center each year.

But it had no assets, reserve fund or endowment.

"We had a wheelbarrow and a walk-behind mower," he said. "It was hand to mouth for quite some time."

Patterson long has praised city officials who secured a federal grant and got a local bond issue passed in the late 1960s that allowed the city to buy about 1,000 acres of undeveloped, flood-prone land on both sides of the Cedar River to create a greenbelt that today is home for much of the Sac and Fox Trail.

A barn and 110 acres of the purchase, where Indian Creek meets the river, became home to the not-for-profit center, which leases the property from the city for $1 a year.

Patterson said those 110 acres, much of which was overgrown with weeds not native to Iowa, had not been a showcase of nature, a status he devoted his years at the center to change.

With the support of his board of directors, Patterson set out to restore land to native prairie, reclaim wetlands and transform woodland littered with underbrush and weeds into a savanna of trees, grasses and plants. The center built a network of trails and has planted plenty of wildflowers along the way, too.

Prairie burns, cleaning out woodlands and continuing to add more trails was not a†priority in Cedar Rapids or in Iowa some 25 and 30 years ago, Patterson said.

"Look at trails, theyíre now very popular," he said. "We were on the forefront of that. And Iím real proud of that.

"We were on the forefront of restoration. Now look around. There are people putting prairies in their yards."

Today, the Nature Center is about 300 acres in size, and it owns about 160 acres of the total. It has reserve funds and an endowment.

It has six full-time employees and four part-time ones, up from four and one some 35 years ago.

Patterson handed over the reins as the centerís director to John Myers last June, and he moved into an office in downtown Cedar Rapids to raise funds for the center. It has reached about the halfway mark of its $7 million capital campaign, which will support the construction of a new center building on higher ground.

The barn that now is the centerís home took on a foot of water during the cityís historic flood of 2008, and Patterson is not sure the building will withstand a next bad flood. Heís not certain either that Cedar Rapids and Iowa learned all that it could from the 2008 disaster in terms holding runoff and soil in place upstream to help prevent floods.

"The loss of little patches of woods upstream, and the little marshes, itís a hurt," he said. "Itís almost a grieving to see these go. And itís a threat.

"Every little bit of that that goes increases the danger of future flooding."

Dave Kramer, former Cedar Rapids Parks Commissioner and City Council member as well as former city parks director, said he has known Patterson from the first day he arrived at the center.

Kramer said Patterson shepherded the center through some tough financial times when it was not always certain the operation would survive.

"Iíve admired Rich because he lives the ideas he projected at the nature center ó do not waste, be self-sufficient to the best of your ability and respect nature and the outdoors," Kramer said.

Kramer is a member of the Crow and Carp Club, a Patterson creation of nature and outdoor lovers, as is Dave Smith, retired city of Cedar Rapids parks superintendent.

Smith said a long line of people can talk about Pattersonís achievement in successfully managing a not-for-profit nature center. But Pattersonís gifts as a fish and wildlife biologist and story teller make him special, too, Smith said.

Smith recalled telling Patterson about how he used to fish as a youngster off the Third Avenue bridge in Cedar Rapids and catch mooneye fish, and Patterson was at the ready to explain how the fishís feeding range changes during the day and why.

"For me, I was just a 14-year-old kid throwing a third of a night crawler down in the Cedar River," Smith said. "But Rich would give you the technical side.

"And his sense of humor is terrific. He has an incredible feeling for communicating with people of every walk of life."

The United Fire Group, newly named UFG, and the McIntyre Foundation in Cedar Rapids have donated $400,000 to the Indian Creek Nature Centerís capital campaign, with the request that the amphitheater at the new center building be named for Rich Patterson and his family.

"United has been a long-term supporter of the nature center," said Randy Ramlo, UFG president and CEO. "Ironically, as they move to the next level with completely new facilities, it is Richís time to move on."

It is fitting, Ramlo said, to name the outdoor piece of the new nature center facilities for Patterson, "who has been involved with the nature center since it was four years old."

Patterson, who with his wife is launching a website called Winding Pathways, said he appreciates the acknowledgment.

"But if anything, I would hope my legacy would be in the prairie and the wildflowers and the impact the center has had on the attitudes of children and people and what they do," he said. "I donít care if my name is attached to it all."

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