“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” Anonymous.
The reason Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie was established in 1996 was to restore a community of plants and animals that had all but disappeared from the Prairie State. Thanks to Lorin Schab, Midewin is much more than that — he spent nearly every day of the past 17 years as a volunteer, fostering a community of people equally devoted to preserving the rich and diverse cultural history of Midewin.
I can’t remember the first time I met Lorin. Probably during one of the many tours he led — perhaps of the Joliet Arsenal relicts, or the pioneer cemeteries and prairie farmsteads within the boundaries of Midewin. I went on each of these tours several times, largely because of Lorin. Lorin never lectured. He never tried to show off how much he knew — and he knew an amazing amount. He simply told stories, rich with just the right amount of facts and figures to bring history alive.
Lorin literally brought history alive when he did his tours and programs in costume. With his bushy beard, dressed in his smart Union blues, he looked like he stepped out of a sepia-toned daguerreotype of Civil War veteran, Private John Fridley. (Lorin, himself, was a U.S. Army veteran and worked for many years as a Section Chief for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Chicago.)
Lorin was a gifted storyteller on paper, too. In several issues of the Prairie Wind — the newsletter of the Midewin Heritage Association, of which he served as founding president — he penned several Civil War Dispatches in the form of letters home from a private in the 100th Illinois Infantry Regiment, the local unit from the Midewin area. “The Rebs had over two miles of cleared land to cross, double the distance of Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. At about 4 pm, with the blare of bugles, and combat flags flying, a line of grey advanced upon us. Our artillery rained down upon the Confederates, but still they advanced. Vastly outnumbered, we became intermingled with the advancing troops. The bodies of the dead and wounded piled like cord wood and the trenches ran with blood. The enemy showed much bravery, but our victory was complete and the slaughter of the enemy terrible.” (The Prairie Wind, Winter 2014-2015)
The tours I loved best, however, were the ones in which Lorin and I went out exploring — just the two of us. Lorin knew Midewin like the back of his hand. He had participated in archaeological digs at several prairie farmsteads and Native American sites. He’d scoured the arsenal ruins countless times. He’d surveyed all of the pioneer cemeteries and helped with prairie restoration in several different areas. He’d led tours, conducted youth education programs, organized trash clean-ups along historic Route 66, which runs through Midewin, the list goes on and on.
But every time Lorin and I went out, he was like a kid in a candy store. Lorin had such an infectious curiosity about everything Midewin. The more he knew, the more he wanted to know, the more he wanted to deepen and enrich his understanding of the full breadth of Midewin’s history — from its earliest inhabitants, through its prairie-busting pioneers, through the farm-busting arsenal years, through the recovery of the largest tallgrass prairie east of the Mississippi River.
Lorin recently passed away at the age of 74. He was laid to rest at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, located immediately adjacent to Midewin — to make sure he can keep any eye on things.
I shall miss Lorin deeply. His kindness, his generosity, his encyclopedic knowledge. But mostly his many stories about a magical, healing place called Midewin.