Our friends at the West Bend Daily News recently wrote a great profile of Andy Larsen, Riveredge’s first naturalist, educator, and Executive Director. Andy was such a vital part of Riveredge’s founding and presided over decades of its early excellence. His ideas and passion still hugely influence what Riveredge is today, and we’re so happy to be able to share this profile with anyone who might have missed it in the paper!
It seems so natural
Area man at Riveredge from the beginning
By JOE VANDELAARSCHOT, Daily News
CEDARBURG — His walk may be a little slower and his voice softer, but Andy Larsen’s passion for Riveredge Nature Center appears as strong as the day he was hired as the center’s top naturalist in June 1969.
Larsen’s ideas and passion helped shape the nature center into what it is today. Current center leaders agree Larsen’s hiring was a key in the center’s history.
“Andy Larsen was hired in June and began work on Aug. 1, (1969,) and the fun began,” the center’s website said in detailing its history.
Larsen said in one of his first newsletters after joining Riveredge: “The goal to which Riveredge must dedicate itself is the development of environmentally literate citizens.”
“That’s a goal as vital now as it was then,” Larsen said. Larsen’s wife, Judy, said her husband’s retirement from Riveredge was in 2001. He served as naturalist, executive director and now is executive director emeritus. Riveredge began with the purchase of 72 acres. According to its website, the center now covers about 379 acres.
“The center’s mission of environmental education and natural area preservation continues,” Larsen said. “I did anything and everything in the early days, but our mission has stayed the same about educating the public about the environment and how to preserve it. We laid out the initial plans for the center then.”
Riveredge Executive Director Jessica Jens said it would not be an overstatement to say the “Riveredge Nature Center is what it is today because of what Andy did here.”
“He still calls us on a regular basis to offer ideas and suggestions,” Jens said. “He’s gone out with me into the back part of the property and told me and showed me things about nature that most people don’t realize or notice. He can’t travel as much as he used to, but his mind is still sharp and shows his great intelligence.”
Jens said Andy is well known for his collection of walking sticks.
“He uses them to point at things when he’s showing people around the nature center,” Jens said. Larsen said he has more than 30 walking sticks he’s gathered during his wide travels.
Larsen’s family has long been involved in protecting the environment and teaching others about it.
“My father, Gilbert, was a friend of Gaylord Nelson,” Andy said. “He worked with him and others in preserving the Apostle Islands.” His sister Mimi was also interested in environmental issues. Judy and Andy said their two children, Eric and Elizabeth, are also interested in the environment.
“Eric is an arctic explorer and Elizabeth works with the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission,” Andy said.
Andy and Judy acknowledged they’ve met many people and made many friends during their decades of involvement with Riveredge.
“To be able to teach young people and adults about the value of nature and the environment was a lot of fun,” Andy said.
The idea for a nature center was originated by the Whitefish Bay Garden Club in early 1965. A committee first inspected the site that became Riveredge Nature Center in the fall of 1965.
By January 1968, the Riveredge Foundation was formed. The immediate goal was to raise the funds necessary to buy land, which was identified as filling the needs for a center. The land, the Grady tract, was located near Newburg on the Milwaukee River.
An eager group arrived at Riveredge in October 1969 to begin careers as volunteer- teacher naturalists. Andy said one of the biggest joys he has from his work at Riveredge is the “number of critters and the natural prairie and grasses that have returned to the land that had been turned into cropland and is again in its natural state.”
Riveredge offers curriculum- development assistance to schools and teachers, continuing education courses for teachers of all grade levels, an outreach program to serve urban and rural areas, and a range of educational programs for the general public.
“Many of those programs were started by Andy,” Judy said. “River-edge programs offer students the opportunity to experience and investigate the natural environment under the guidance of skilled environmental educators.”
The biodiversity of the land provides a teaching tool for understanding interconnectedness, development of specific sustainable systems for energy, shelter, food, waste, water and land management.
Andy was diagnosed in 1988 with Parkinson’s Disease. Despite health issues, he continues to meet and talk with people who are interested in the environment.