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Dick Young Dies; Illinois Loses An Astounding and Inspiring Naturalist

Posted Mar 16 2011 2:35pm
Dick Young in 2008.jpg

Dick Young, Illinois naturalist and environmental leader has died at age 86. Here you see a photo I took of him standing on the entrance to his green roof taken in 2008 when I met him at his home.

Dick Young, Illinois naturalist and inspirational environmental leader has died on Sunday at age 86. In 2008 I had the gift of interviewing him at his home personally. Below is a record of our conversation which I found deeply personal and moving - a story I felt important to tell in memory of him. Dick was an inspirational man; teaching the world about eco-environmental concerns long before it was popular and he will be sorely missed. This post is my salute to Dick and his amazing life.

Dick Young and Shawna Coronado 2008 .jpg

Dick Young with Shawna Coronado in the Winter of 2008

For many who get involved in practicing conservation, it is a simple choice of doing what is right. By living life the "right" way, a person can feel healthier and be healthier every day. No one knows this more than 83 year old Dick Young. He believes that hard work and doing the right thing is what has kept him "young" both emotionally and physically. He is a man who has suffered unimaginable stress and who ultimately found peace in becoming a naturalist and environmental supporter.

When I went to meet Young at his Fox River home in Oswego, Illinois in 2008, I was amazed at his list of accomplishments in life and wondered how he was able to do the hundreds of conservation related projects in his lifetime. Young was quick to point out that life is short and he has done everything one step at a time. He has lived a full and happy life although his life has not always been trouble-free, but it has been well-rounded and satisfactory because he has followed a simple formula when completing each step: Do what is right.

His move into this ecologically-based career started slowly and gradually evolved. When he was a child he was influenced by his father, Dwight Young, who was a carpenter before the war. Young's father become a nuclear scientist connected to the Manhattan project and was one of the first core scientists at Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory. Dwight Young believed in hard work and in using creativity to find solutions. According to Young, he also developed the first altimeter which helped save many American lives. His scientific work played an important role in making the United States a world power. It, at times, was also destructive to nature. Dwight Young's son, the youthful Dick Young, was perhaps because of his father's career experience, taught the responsibility of stewardship of the land and every individual's responsibility to help assist and balance nature.

When he was old enough, only a boy really, Pearl Harbor was bombed and Young went into the Marine's in defense of his country. Young enjoyed nature and being outdoors. He often ran and while stationed at Oceanside, California, Young won multiple contests for speed running. He soon won the regiment prize and the recognition of his commander. Young was asked to carry the phone equipment and be a runner at the fighting front during World War II. Several Navajo Indians were a part of Dick's company and he explained how he worked in conjunction with them to send and receive secretly coded messages in the Navajo language.

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He told me the heart wrenching story of how he helped win Iwo Jima. There were two flag-raisings on Mount Suribachi during the Iwo Jima conflict; Young was at the first flag raising. The second has become a now famous Associated Press photograph. It was a bloody event which Young remembers in vivid detail. I sat on the edge of my seat with tears in my eyes as Young told the story of how virtually every member of his platoon was killed. 

He said that his experiences in World War II helped him see life more clearly. When he came back after seeing such devastation, both from a human and environmental perspective, Young decided to live life placing the importance of values and family first; in other words, Young believed in doing the right thing. After seeing such horrible destruction, Young wanted to come back to his precious Fox River and live life on its green banks with his family.

When he returned from the war, he and his family worked to build their home and their lives together. Young and his family built their home of recycled stone which was given to Young after a large building had to come down. He lifted and placed most of the stones himself, even when they weighed hundreds of pounds. Young built the roof of his home with an eco-friendly idea in mind. They made it of reinforced concrete and planted a garden on top of the house. The plants functioned as an insulating factor and became a "Green Roof" before the term was ever coined. Young has had the roof for over fifty-two years and is quick to point out that his neighbor has replaced his traditional roof several times in that period.

While I was visiting with Young I was able to walk on his green roof. It is very beautiful in the summer and attracts hundreds of butterflies and birds. He has seen herons, egrets, cardinals, woodpeckers, house finches and dozens of others come to his home for refuge. His home resembles a "hobbit house" to me - a warm and comfortable plant-covered residence - which he has built and maintained from nearly all recycled products. Some of the items which fascinated me included a recycled copper handrail he made himself and attached as a support when walking to the upstairs area. The house is filled with knotty oak and a grapevine ceiling molding which he found in nature. Most everything in the home has been reused from another source and has an interesting history.

Over the years, Young gradually began implementing more and more conservation ideas. For example, he is one of the first in the region to utilize grey water on his property by pumping the bi-products of his two septic tanks out into a large retention field that resembles a bioswale so the ground and plants might filter it back to the water aquifer.

In every way, Young has lived a life which is centered around nature and his family. From his creatively built home to the entire row of homes Young lives on; they are all his children's houses. He is very close with his family and they walk in and out of each others homes without knocking - they share their time here on earth together. Young watches he granddaughter regularly and spends lots of time building and growing in his relationships with his family. All his grandchildren speak of and enjoy nature with him. I believe this is also part of why his age does not seem to hold him back. Spending time outdoors, spending time with family and doing the right thing is important to Young and his life is lead by placing these things first.

Young had Scarlet Fever when he was ten years old which damaged his heart. He ultimately had to have replacement valves made from a pig installed in his heart. Yet Young would never let life be dictated by a mere heart surgery. He always works to be the best he could be and has given the best of what he is to his family and to nature. He also believes that all people should work towards their education. Young has two Bachelors Degrees: one in Psychology and one in Biology, as well as a Masters Degree in Community Planning. He has written a book on nature for Kane County, Illinois and has been honored by having two forest preserves in separate counties named after him. What he could not learn about nature in the classroom, he learned on his own.

Without a doubt, Dick Young has gone above and beyond in his efforts as a naturalist. What started his desire to be more heavily involved in nature was when Young was spending time with his family down by the river. There was a disgusting level of garbage on the banks and his children were playing with it. That angered Young. He said, "It was so unhealthy and my family lived along the river. We decided we were going to clean it up and make a difference!"

Eventually Young began to see how slowly government can move and how difficult cleaning up and improving areas can be. Yet, he did not give up. More and more people approached Young to have them help with various river clean-ups due to sewer dumping and more. Every time Young came up against pollution and habitat destruction, he fought it with everything he had and found a solution for the community. I asked him why he dedicated so much of his life to river improvement, landfill clean up, and forest preserve management and he said quite simply, "It was the right thing to do." Seeing his children playing with garbage stimulated a career which has lasted forty years and he still volunteers with the Forest Preserves today.

Another amazing achievement for Young is that he scientifically studied and learned all the native plant information he knows and has written about on his own. He had some help along the way, but his passion to help with water and land conservation spurred him on. He wanted his grandchildren and their grandchildren to have the gift of seeing broad expanses of land as they have been for hundreds and hundreds of years. An enormous achievement in this modern day of urban sprawl. No one else was doing this and he saw the need, stepped in and made a difference.

In 1987 Young retired. He continued on in his forest preserve and environmental work. His book, Kane County Wild Plants & Natural Areas is now in its third edition. In this book Young stresses conservation by using water-saving native plants. In the book he says, "[the purpose of this book is] to urge the protection of our native plants wherever they are found, to commend the use of native material where appropriate in our plant communities and to encourage a much wider diversity of all plants in the environments we shape and influence."

Young has continued his work to study and improve local forest preserves for nearly all of his adult life. He feels that volunteering and working with conservation groups has enhanced his life as well as his health. He suggests that all people get involved in their local community and work with nature and conservation for better health. Although, according to Young, you can get many physical benefits from being outdoors and working to conserve and be a steward to the land, you can also, "gain emotional satisfaction from becoming more conservation-oriented and by getting volunteers together in your community."

In 2001, the Forest Preserve District of Kane County Illinois renamed a 1,010 acre Forest Preserve, by far Kane County's Largest, after Dick Young. The Dick Young Forest Preserve is home to a 10,000 year old marsh, a fen, as well as a prairie, a savanna, a lake and more.

The second Forest Preserve named after him is in Kendall County. It is called the Richard Young Forest Preserve and has about 172 acres of open space. There are over 430 species of native plants in this very special preserve, with many of them being rare or endangered. It is primarily an oak-maple woodland with seeps, restored prairies and the wandering Lyon Creek.

Never before have two forest preserves been named after one man in the state of Illinois. This honor is given to Young because of his tireless and life-long conservation efforts in relationship to having clean air, water, and land for the community and residents which live in Illinois.

Young's legacy has certainly been his dedication to the environment and to the human race. In saving the earth's health, we are saving humans. In saving the human's health, we are saving earth. It is a partnership which Young has fully explored in his lifetime. He says it best in the preface of his book, "...the human intellect and spirit still seek communion with a Natural Order as revealed throughout recorded history, and certainly as important as saving native plants is perpetuating these irreplaceable sanctuaries. If one treads softly here, she or he can meld into the ageless unfolding natural drama and find a measure of wisdom and contentment that transcends our feverish accomplishments."

At the end of our interview I thanked Dick and asked him for his advice in inspiring my readers to start practicing better conservation. Young says the best thing to do is to begin practicing conservation simply and one step at a time beginning at home. When you are ready, grow out into the larger community by joining groups which are trying to help nature. He says that volunteering has been one of the most emotionally rewarding experiences for him and he wants everyone to receive those types of benefits from their community. His lifetime of physical activity has helped him and he encourages you to be active too. Dick Young has lived a life filled with the celebration of family, nature and community. He is satisfied. He is healthy. You can be too. It all starts with doing the right thing.

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