RNC’s Susan Sander rejoins her Wisconsin family

Susan Sander, just before she moved to Wisconsin to be closer to family, paused for a last look at one of the information kiosks along Kerrville's River Trail, which features an environmental education piece she wrote.

Long-time environmental educator Susan Sander says she has sold her home in Kerrville and temporarily moved in with her sister, Linda Zoiss, in Wisconsin.

"My front yard in Kerrville was a wildflower garden," Sander says. "I managed to find a buyer who appreciates that. Roof damage from the recent hail almost derailed my plans, but I got a local roofer to replace it, so the sale could go through."

She says she was born in Kewanee, Ill., and grew up in Lake County, in northeast Illinois. "I went to Lotus Elementary School, how cool is that? I graduated from Grant Community High School in 1969. I went to Augustana College in Rock Island, on the Mississippi River, and earned a BA in philosophy."

After college, Sander says, "I lived on Washington Island, in Lake Michigan, during the late 1970s. The island is 35 square miles, and the only access is by boat. Since everything had to be ferried in, there was a lot of interest in solar and wind power."

Then she says she went to graduate school at Sangamon State University, earning a master of arts in land use planning, in a time where environmental impact statements were just catching on.

Sander says it was a case of "love gone blind" that led her to Texas in 1983. "I landed in Comfort, then moved to Center Point, and finally to Kerrville. I had no clue about Texas. It was a huge shock, almost an alien world. In the 1980s I couldn't find any solar, and I learned about the power of oil. I had to learn how to see the different natural world here, but I found connections. The summer birds I knew up north, like robins, were winter birds in the Hill Country."

She says she became a translator, explaining environmental concepts to the general public, for instance by publishing "Eco-Notes," a Kerrville Daily Times column, from 1987 to 1990. She began to explain what it would mean to have an independent nature center, not part of the city or county park system, for Kerrville.

Sander says, "It originally grew out of a movement to save the Captain Winfield Scott property on Water Street. The home there had been built by Dodo Parker's grandfather in 1879, and it was surrounded by a huge field that a plant survey by Tony Galluci found was 92 percent native wildflowers. But it was zoned commercial, and there was never enough funding to buy the property."

In retrospect, however, she says that may have been good. "We bought the Lemos Street property in 1992. It was just the opposite, 92 percent non-native. It was not native habitat any more, and it took a lot of effort to restore it. But that made it a better proposition for education, teaching people in the Hill Country how to restore their non-native property. In 1993 and 1994 Dr. Bob Dewers built the arboretum. We say he has a Ph.D. in trees, but we probably wouldn't have been able to justify that on the Water Street property."

Sander says the progress on what became Riverside Nature Center was amazing, as she began learning who the resource people were. The first RNCA volunteers came from the Junior Service Guild, who assembled three educational "kits" so they could carry their message to the Kerrville schools. Soon Kerrville Independent School District was sending students to learn, and building gardens at their schools. Club Ed, at that time under the KISD umbrella, held a "Hill Country Natural History" series, and the Kerrville Parks Department started summer environmental programs.

So during her 37 years in Kerrville Sander says she became the founding co-president, with Marcie Dorman, of RNCA; served on an early Ecology Task-Force; worked on a committee to beautify Five Points; was a member of the Headwaters Groundwater Conservation District Board for five years; completed the Leadership Kerr County class; and served on the Parks Advisory Committee.

Sander says people might be surprised that she also worked with local developers, like Brent Bates, who though they might have a very different outlook about land use, could share an appreciation of the beauty and utility of landscaping by restoring native plants.

She says, "We accomplished very different things at the Lemos site. The role of RNCA became to put pieces together, to find the right experts so we could ask the right questions. Then people can educate each other. One result was the River Trail. We have the beautiful Guadalupe running right through town, but we needed to get people to understand the river. Education is ongoing. For instance, old-timers have a rich oral history about flash floods, but without projects like the trail and the nature center there's no way to share the information with newcomers."

So now Sander has moved back to southeast Wisconsin, where she plans to rediscover that environment. She'll have help, she says. "I have a one-year-old great-nephew who is totally into birds, and my great-niece, a bit older, is fascinated by butterflies."

In parting, she reminds all the friends she has here, "Let no one say, and say it to your shame, that all was beauty here, until you came."

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