St. Charles resident Mary Tebeau loves the outdoors, but she has to admit there’s still plenty to learn about the nature.
Stuck at home during the pandemic last year she discovered The Good Nature Hour, a weekly Zoom featuring Pam Otto, the park district’s outreach ambassador. Of course she had been reading Otto’s weekly columns in the Kane County Chronicle for some time, but being able to tune for weekly dose of nature talks via Zoom brought the writer to her living room.
“I’m an outdoorsy person and I have learned so much from her,” Tebeau said. “To have nature open up through her eyes is a gift.”
Otto has become the face of the park district’s nature programs, said Chris Gingrich, assistant superintendent of outdoor education for the park district. Whether she is helping lead a program at Hickory Knolls Nature Center for families or giving a presentation at the Adult Active Center, Otto’s sincere manner and boundless knowledge makes her a favorite, so much they often call or email seeking her out for advice on their own nature run-ins, Gingrich said.
For Otto, the role at the park district is a perfect fit, yet it was far from a straight career path. As a high school student was dissuaded from her interests in biology and ecology.
“This is something I always wanted to do, but in the 1970s my high school guidance counselor said it was a hobby, not a career,” Otto said. “I was steered away. While studying at University of Illinois I became interested in food and business.”
Otto found a successful career in trade publishing, but never let go of her love of nature. When she heard about an opportunity to become a volunteer for the forest preserve Otto rekindled her interest. With training she became a traveling naturalist, teaching members of garden clubs and school groups. In 1999 she enrolled at Northern Illinois University and obtained her master’s degree in outdoor education and even found a student internship at Red Oak Nature Center in Batavia.
She joined the St. Charles Park District in the fall of 2007 and in 2009 the park district broke ground on the Hickory Knolls facility, a community nature center. Otto was busy, leading outreach programs, assisting at the nature center and she accepted the offer to start a weekly column for the park district in the Kane County Chronicle, allowing her skills as a writer and her love of nature to merge on paper.
St. Charles resident Greg Swedberg said he first started reading Pam’s column in the Chronicle on his train commutes to work.
“Her writing style, it came across so genuine,” Swedberg said.
Reading her column inspired Swedberg and his wife to step up their knowledge of nature and become Kane County Certified Naturalists. When one of their instructional programs was lead by Otto, the couple admits they became a bit star-struck to meet her in person. With Otto’s warm and outgoing personality their nerves soon settled and they soaked up her stories of nature adventures and her ability to help people discover the nature in their own backyard, neighborhood whether it is looking for animal tracks in the snow or going out to see a special bird migration.
“Until Pam told us, we had no idea of all the natural life that was happening,” Greg Swedberg said.
Tebeau said Otto has a gift for engaging her audience, making the talks and workshops enjoyable while providing a depth of information that can’t be matched.
“Pam is just a real jewel,” Tebeau said, Otto said her aim is to answer questions and help build an appreciation for the land and animals around us. With increased awareness, comes a greater appreciation and care for nature, from the bugs in our yard to the delicate ecosystem of the Fox River.
Even before the pandemic, Otto had been working on an idea for a show. Last April she launched The Good Nature Hour via Zoom, where she was able to go further in depth from her weekly columns and reach out to residents. She’s gained a loyal following of fans.
“I’m really grateful to the park district,” Otto said, adding that while the job has changed through the years, she has found her place with her outreach into the community.
Otto enjoys the work and looks forward to increased in-person events and activities as well. She’s already lined up classes for later this year with details in the next park district brochure.
“We live in town, but that is also open to different animals, plants. We’re called to be stewards and with Pam we can learn more about the nature around us and the affect we can have right in our own backyard,” Greg Swedberg said.