‘Steward of Earth’ honored: VIDEO

Published 2:58 pm Saturday, September 13, 2008

If Larry Dolphin has his way, that limestone sign Mike Goetz designed for his 20th anniversary will be out of sight to most Jay C. Hormel Nature Center visitors.

The center’s director and naturalist said he prefers the “Larry Dolphin Prairie Trail” sign go some place in the Prairie Garden or East Prairie area in the far northeast corner of newly acquired nature center property.

The man who enjoys so much teaching children about the environment, educating the public at large about green living and, sometimes, literally making a fool of himself before audiences — Who can forget his prairie chicken dance? — has a shy streak to him.

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There is the public Dolphin and the private. One whom everyone thinks they know and another for those who get close to him. Sometimes the two blur. Other times they stand apart. Both are genuine.

Julie Champlin is one who knows Dolphin best outside his family.

Champlin and others organized a surprise 20th anniversary party for Dolphin last Sunday, Sept. 7.

Nancy Dolphin and the couple’s children, Amber and Ben, went along with the gag.

So did the entire Austin Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department and Park Board.

Nature center intern Alex Watson and maintenance specialist Duane Sucha wouldn’t say a word about it.

And the more than 200 people, who crowded into Ruby Rupner Auditorium to honor Dolphin on two decades of … well … being Larry Dolphin and overseeing operations at the city’s most beloved attraction, also kept the secret.

He was surprised.

“When I walked into the place and saw all those people I wondered what was up,” Dolphin said. “I went over and hugged Dick and Ann Waldman, because they were supposed to be celebrating their wedding anniversary, and then it dawned on me what was going on. They fooled me good.”

It was a night to remember for a long time, if not forever.

“Thank you, Larry, for your 20 years of dedication to the nature center and to the Austin community,” remarked Champlin, arguably Dolphin’s most valuable assistant. “Your boundless energy, enthusiasm and stewardship for the Earth are truly evident in your everyday life at work, home and in our community.”

“Every kid in Austin knows who ‘Mr. Dolphin’ is,” Champlin said. “Children and patrons alike have been positively affected by your special style of teaching and the many programs you have offered.

“You have changed many lives and opened up many hearts and minds to become good stewards for the Earth,” Champlin said.

One after another, ovations greeted Champlin’s words about Dolphin.

Laughter washed over the Rupner Auditorium crowd repeatedly.

Dolphin took it all in stride with his familiar self-deprecating humor and humility.

A very good 20 years

Fast-forward to a rainy Thursday morning, Sept. 11.

Dolphin is seated at the head of the table in the library at the nature center’s visitors center for an interview.

He is wearing a sweater shirt with a RE-Fest button on his chest.

Atop his head is an Indiana Jones-style hat.

The weather combined with angst — overcast skies that cloak any sunlight outside and, maybe, the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, brought inevitable gloom.

Dolphin, the manic teacher, lecturer and entertainer, was subdued. It’s possible another side of Dolphin may would emerge.

“My first introduction to the nature center was the big rock which I climbed with my suit on the day of my interview,” he said. “I noticed some dignitaries coming — the people who would be interviewing me — so I jumped off the back side of the rock so they wouldn’t see me.”

Another memory from 20 years ago was the giant burr oak tree that adorned the nature center’s north loop. “I looked into the crack of that big, old tree and saw it was hollow so I knew it wasn’t long for this world,” he said.

A rock and a tree, products of nature, fashioned his first impression of Austin.

“My first thought was this would be a good place to work because of the facilities that were offered. We had the maintenance shop and the visitors center at the time — the Ruby Rupner Auditorium wasn’t built yet,” he said. “I was a park manager in southwest Wisconsin and my training was in environmental education and nature interpretation.”

“The park manager’s job I had wasn’t something I wanted to do all my life,” he said.

Dolphin liked the nature center and the people in charge liked Dolphin.

“A good share of the job they offered me was going to be teaching and that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.

Bob Auer, then PRF director and his successor Denny Maschka, former nature center caretaker Dan Clayton and park board members Lu Schmitt, Gabby Weiss and Lefty Kelly did the initial interview then and are not forgotten now.

When Dolphin came to work his first day on the job, the first visitor he met was none other than Jacques Chippault, volunteer, environmental activist, Friend of the Nature Center and Austin Audubon Society supporter and Mother Nature’s quiet ally.

Dolphin liked his choice of the job more.

Next, he met Terry Dorsey and Richard Smaby from the Austin Audubon Society who came to welcome Dolphin to the birding community and then he met Dorothy (Wandell) Owens, hard-working volunteer, who introduced herself.

There was no turning back on his decision to come to Austin.

He joined the Audubon Society and, a staunch conservationist, then Austin Izaak Walton League Chapter No. 10.

“Audubon came first and then the Ikes,” he said of his off-the-clock pursuits. “Through those conservation organizations and their membership, we had some of the same identity and goals,” he said, making one of his familiar long and sometimes obtuse replies. “For what we want to accomplish not only at the nature center, but elsewhere, too, we were all focused on the same thing: having a healthy planet not only for us but for future generations.”

Bigger is better at nature center

The nature center, once an arboretum of 200,000 trees created by Jay Catherwood Hormel, included 287 acres in 1988. Today, it has 507 acres after a land acquisition program added acres to the north and east. The purpose: protecting native prairie in the oak savanna, restoring the prairie, creating wildlife habitat and protecting the nature center from the threat of residential development in northeast Austin.

Things happened quickly. A picturesque log cabin was built, a portion of hard-surfaced trails opened for the handicapped and families with strollers.

The nature center benefited from the generosity of Margaret Beck and built the Rupner auditorium and created an endowment fund for other purposes.

Along the way, the nature center’s programs educated more and more children each year. Programs, folk-singers and storytellers entertained the public.

Like nature, the center does not rest. Change happens.

Presently, there are plans to expand and upgrade the visitors center.

Not all of this is to Dolphin’s credit alone, but he was there when it happened.

How does one touch so many?

The interview continues throughout the morning. Dolphin is more historian, chronicling dates and events in nature center history: Vince Shay and Dick Burger, former director/naturalists — like he — plus supporters such as John Beckel, Dave Cole and Al Layman who helped with the latest $800,000 land acquisition and those who helped with the expansion of education programs.

In the rambling interview, Dolphin mentions all.

He registers opinions, but seldom is the word “I” heard.

For instance: About the latest six figure land acquisition, he said of the outcome, “From my perspective, to leave more land for people to enjoy, so that they can see wildlife and get out and beyond the southern, more crowded end of the nature center, and relax and have a place to go, makes it all worthwhile.

“It’s not only for people, but it’s also for wildlife and gives us more opportunities to plant trees for the environment,” he said.

What could he have been thinking that night that he was honored so affectionately?

To be singled out and thrust into the spotlight on his 20th anniversary at the nature center must have been an uncomfortable experience for the man who prefers cross country skiing trips in winter’s white silence or walking trails and spotting birds in tree branches … by himself.

The land acquisition is one of the things he is most proud of helping to fruition during his decades; they are now protecting more of the good Earth.

It also teaches children about the importance and value of the natural world and “how we are connected to it,” he said.

Dolphin can hold those accomplishments close to his heart. Or, maybe, he can daydream about what his career choice might have been.

Were he not a nature center director and naturalist, what would he be in life?

Answer: teacher. There is no runner-up choice.

The rainy September morning was a wasted opportunity if the goal was to get Dolphin to talk about himself.

More often — much more, in fact —- he praised others for the nature center’s growth and success.

“The Friends of the Nature Center have, I believe, been a wonderful community of people who have supported the nature center along with the Park Board. They have specific ownership of the nature center,” he said. “They both understand the value of this place as an educational facility where one can learn more about the natural world and understand that we are all connected to it and that our resources come from it and we need to take care of it.”

Sidekick and “super volunteer” Champlin adroitly summed up Dolphin’s impact at the anniversary party.

“We are celebrating a beautiful sunset on the last 20 years, but we are extending a warm welcome with a bright sunrise with your continually changing vision for the nature center and the land.”

“You truly do what you love to do,” Champlin said, “and it makes your heart and soul full and rich.”