John Horkel grew up in Houston. To him, a beach meant sandy dunes.
His first trip to New England came when he got married. Seeing Maine’s rocky coastline, he thought, “Those are some serious beaches.”
Spoken like a true naturalist.
When a position as executive director of Westport’s Earthplace — then called the Nature Center — opened up, John jumped at the chance. He’d been curator of the Texas Zoo; this was a chance to work in a part of the country he found “very interesting, ecologically and personally.”
His 1st day of work was December 1, 1985.
His last day will be November 30, 2012. After 27 years at a job he thought he’d have for 5, John figures it’s time to move on.
He’ll do so with a long list of accomplishments. He helped start a nursery school; earned accreditation for the summer camp; added the 22-acre Partrick wetlands, and partnered with the Harbor Watch water quality monitoring group.
John has helped grow Earthplace — the 62-acre Woodside Lane center for nature and environmental education and enjoyment — into a vital, if often overlooked, element of Westport life.
Founded in 1958 — so John has been there for exactly half its existence — Earthplace is “where people can walk a trail, see an eagle, get away from the hectic pace of life,” the executive director says.
“It’s a place of emotional and spiritual renewal. Connecting with the natural world is very important for mental well-being. We provide that connection.”
John’s strength, he says, is “providing support for other people to grow.” He’s mentored staff members — right now, 10 full-time and up to 50 seasonal employees, as well as a corps of dedicated volunteers.
He’s also been a great role model for Westporters who just enjoy nature.
One of John’s great pleasures, at 66 years of age, is seeing once-young children come back as adults, and hearing them describe the impact Earthplace has made.
“Some people make the environment their career,” he says. “Others have jobs with nothing to do with it. But they say the message of connecting with nature has stuck with them all their lives.”
Recently, John received a letter from a man who lives, coincidentally, in Texas. He’d found Earthplace by googling “Nature Center” and “Mid-Fairfield County Youth Museum” — the earlier names he remembered.
He’d lived in Westport for only 6 months, long ago. But — now in his 50s – he recalled catching frogs on the property. He volunteers with the Houston Audubon Society. In thanks for the impact Earthplace made on his life, he sent a small contribution.
John’s contribution to the center has been enormous. Now, though, he thinks it’s time to hand over the reins to someone “more connected to technology and social media.” The change is “an opportunity for Earthplace to take a breath; look at its mission, the community and economic realities, and see where it goes next.”
John — whose wife died of breast cancer several years ago, and whose son Derek is a Ph.D in particle physics at the University of Washington, and whose daughter Sarah is an educator in Hartford — is also ready for the next stage of his life.
He’s moved to New Haven. He’s mentoring in the schools, and gotten involved in conservancy activities, community gardens and urban agriculture.
“It’s emotionally and spiritually invigorating,” he says of the change. “I grew up in an urban area, and now I’m back in the same type of place.”
First, though, there’s Earthplace’s “A Night Out for Nature” (Fri., Nov. 9, the Inn at Longshore, 7 p.m.). The annual fundraising gala has turned into a farewell for John Horkel.
He’ll be roasted and toasted. A great crowd of current and former Earthplace staff members, volunteers and friends is expected.
All look forward to honoring their friend and mentor, the longtime executive director.
It will be a wonderful night.
(For more information on the Earthplace gala, click here.)