A little while back, I’d written about a trio of favorite nature preserves, which my wife and I enjoy while biking the Old Plank Road Trail: Old Plank Road Prairie, Hickory Barrens and Dewey Helmick. I’d often wondered who Dewey Helmick was.
Very few Illinois Nature Preserves are named for people. Certainly I knew the story behind the George B. Fell Nature Preserve, having written a little book about the founder the Illinois Nature Preserves system. I knew that Cap Sauers Holdings had been named in honor of the famed superintendent of the Cook County Forest Preserves and an original commissioner for the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.
But who was Dewey Helmick? All I knew from his obituary — he passed away in 2009 — was that he was a former Rich Township Supervisor and a Park Forest Village Trustee. Professionally, he worked at the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times. That’s about it. What, I wondered, was his claim to conservation fame to merit having a rare remnant of Illinois prairie named in his honor?
In response to the story I’d written, I received an unexpected reply: “I was happy to read that people are enjoying the nature preserve named after my grandfather, Dewey Helmick.”
“Hey, Rich,” I replied to Dewey’s grandson. “Tell me more.”
Dewey got off to a rough start. Born in 1927, likely somewhere in Maryland, his mother died while he was an infant. His father gave him up to be raised by his sister-in-law and her husband. He grew up in West Virginia, graduated high school and was drafted into the Air Force. Following his discharge, he attended West Virginia University where he met his future wife. They married and had three children — born in three different states, reflective of Dewey’s bouncing around to find work in his chose field of journalism.
In the 1950s, he ended up in Park Forest, Illinois. He did, indeed, work for the Chicago Daily News until it ceased publication in 1978. Thereafter he worked as a copy editor for the Chicago Sun-Times, where one colleague remembered him as, “silent and bald, [who] wore thick black glasses and a cardigan and…led a double life as a township supervisor and as a clown named Funnybone.”
Rich remembered his grandfather in his clown costume, appearing in local parades and at schools programs. He remembered, too, that his grandfather founded a theater program for Faith United Protestant Church in Park Forest and participated in table tennis in various senior tournaments as a member of the Park Forest Table Tennis Club.
Rich shared one other thing — an article his grandfather had written about bird watching in Hawaii. Dewey knew his birds: “Although cattle egrets are no strangers to Illinoisans,” he wrote, “the birder will almost stumble over them in the fields around Honolulu.” When Rich visited his grandparents in the 1980s, his grandfather took him to a rail corridor named for the old plank road it replaced. Abandoned for years, like many Illinois rail corridors it still harbored surprisingly rich remnants of native tallgrass prairie — and lots of birds.
As a bird-loving township supervisor and village trustee — who also served on the local Traffic Safety Commission because of his love of biking — Dewey doubtless played a leadership role in the twenty-year effort to transform that abandoned rail corridor into Old Plank Road Trail. “We salute all those people who love to walk, run, ride and skate and admire nature in safety and serenity,” Dewey said as he cut the ribbon on the new, multi-use trail on a day filled with “butterflies and balloons, speeches” and a 24-foot long cake that included a map of the 22-mile trail.
Rich shared one other thing. “As my grandfather had his body donated to medical science after he passed, this nature preserve is the closest thing I have to a grave site where he is memorialized.”
I’m immensely grateful to Rich for sharing more about his grandfather, for helping me to fill in a missing bit of history about one of Illinois’ natural area gems. What I’ve learned is that Dewey Helmick was no George Fell or Cap Sauers. Then again, few are. Neither was he a major industrialist who donated 250 acres of land to establish the Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area.
Dewey Helmick wasn’t an Elton Fawks, who spent 40 years as a body shop supplies dealer, but whose real “job” was protecting his beloved bald eagles. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Elton began to notice a sharp decline in eagle populations along the Mississippi River near his home in East Moline. Over the course of a decade, he organized eagle monitoring groups within nine states along the river — an effort ultimately taken on by the National Audubon Society, part of a nationwide campaign that led to the banning of DDT, a pesticide responsible for thinning the eggshells of eagles and many other bird species. Elton also lead the effort to protect a prominent eagle roost, which now bears the name, the Elton E. Fawks Bald Eagle Refuge.
Instead, Dewey was his own kind of conservationist. He was a man of many different talents and interests. Journalist. Civic leader. Entertainer. Bicyclist. Birder. And the kind of grandfather who inspired in his grandchildren a life-long love of nature.
I’m glad to know that the Dewey Helmick Nature Preserve means so much to his grandson. Because it means to much to all of us. By virtue of being dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve, it is preserved in perpetuity. An irreplaceable piece of our ecological heritage. A fitting memorial to a man who helped to protect it. A reminder that it is within the reach of everyone, in different ways, to protect the beauty of the earth for ourselves, for our grandchildren, forever.