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Carol Thompson

The Best Friends - A Personal Tribute to Carol McFeeters Thompson

by Carl J. Wenning (with the assistance of Lauren Thompson)

August 2015

I first met park naturalist Carol McFeeters Thompson about 25 years ago. It was a delightful summer day when my family and I visited Weldon Springs State Park for the first time. We had a picnic near the springs, visited the boat dock and restaurant, and then took off on a hike around the lake. I carried my 5-year-old daughter Rebecca upon my shoulders while my wife Carolyn carried newborn Teresa.

On our way around the lake we noticed what appeared to be a nature center on the south side of the park. We also saw what appeared to be a naturalist sitting outside on a picnic table in front of the nature center. After finishing our hike, we drove over to the nature center to see what sort of interest it might hold for Rebecca. Little did we realize that we would make the acquaintance that day of someone with whom we'd have a family relationship for the next 25 years. Unfortunately, that relationship was cut short when Carol passed away from cancer at 58 years of age on July 18, 2015.

I was a nature interpreter from the time I first started working in a planetarium which I did for more than 25 years. As a fellow nature interpreter, Carol was a kindred spirit. While she was "lord of the earth"; I was "lord of the sky." Our knowledge complemented each others', and it was part of the basis of our long-time relationship. Just like she did with so many others, she'd carefully instruct me and my family in the way of the world. Carol always had ready answers for our questions about bugs, insects, birds, flowers, trees, and almost everything else in Weldon Springs State Park and the wider world. In return, I shared my knowledge about the sun, moon, stars, planets, and the wider universe with Carol. We also shared our mutual trials and tribulations as nature interpreters. It was a strongly supportive relationship. So, much so that with the passing of the years, I got to know Carol as "my sister."

Even at a young age, Carol had a passion for nature. She spent her free time collecting rocks, watching birds, and identifying animals. Self-taught in the marvels of nature, she started volunteering at Weldon Springs State Park in 1984. Through her efforts, she got the one-room Union School House to be relocated to Weldon Springs State Park where it became the parks' nature center. Carol worked with taxidermists in the area to professionally mount animals so that people of all ages could get a close up look at the animals around the park, and in their backyards. Carol donated countless hours to the displays, projects, and visitors to Weldon Springs.

In 1997 (after 13 years of volunteering), she was officially hired by the State of Illinois as Weldon Springs' first park interpreter. According to Carol, "Park interpreters have the best of all jobs. We get to play in the creek, chase butterflies, and watch birds. We treat toads to a meal, talk to turkeys, and flirt with fireflies. We step back in time, walk a mile in another person's moccasins, and imagine the future."

Carol further noted, "Park interpreters serve as links between a park and its visitors. Interpreters unlock the secrets of Nature and of distant times in an effort to enrich the visitor's experience. Interpreters provide both information and inspiration - challenging the intellect and touching the emotions. In other words, we discover 'cool stuff' in our parks and share it with others."

Not to be limited to the park, Carol started a program called "Naturalist in the Classroom" through which she introduced elementary school students of Clinton to the wonders of the natural world. She would visit local classrooms at least once a week, and local and other area schools would visit her at Weldon Springs for guided hikes, interactive activities, and environmental education programs.

Carol was also involved with children outside of the school setting, offering assistance to Boy and Girl Scouts, 4-H clubs and organized youth groups, and helping with science projects. She held an annual Kid's Fishing Derby, an annual Perseid Meteor Shower viewing session (complete with hot chocolate and s'mores), volunteered with the National Wild Turkey Foundation, the Weldon Springs Foundation, City Clinton's Tree Commission, and the National Audubon Society.

Carol had a beautiful way with words, and wrote a column for the Clinton Journal weekly, providing readers with insights into the nature around them, and encouraging them to find the beauty in their surroundings. She has had her articles and her photographs published in magazines. She professionally edited (and contributed to) several published books and calendars by local photographer and friend Robert Shaw.

In July 1989, Carol was invited to the south lawn of the White House and recognized by President George W. Bush, receiving the "Take Pride in America" bronze award. While there, she hobnobbed with the President and Mrs. Bush, Vice President Dan Quayle, and the Secretaries of Agriculture and Veterans' Affairs. Most recently she received the Community Volunteer Award for "Those Who Excel." On October 17, 2015 Carol posthumously received the 2015-2016 "Those Who Excel" education award from the Illinois State Board of Education.

Carol loved to travel. She had an extensive bucket list and was always adding to it. She had travel to an overwhelming number of interesting places soaking in the beauty of her surroundings. She enjoyed spending time with her family and friends and her two granddaughters, who were both the light of her life. She also enjoyed bird watching, playing with her dog Windsor, shopping, eating Strawberry Poppy seed salads from Panera on Saturdays with her mom, enjoying Sunday morning breakfasts with her family, fishing, and doing many other various outdoor activities.

The loss of Carol as a nature interpreter will have an incalculable impact on the community of Clinton and visitors at Weldon Springs State Park. On a more personal note, her loss leaves a deep hole in the heart of all who knew and loved her.

As a living memorial to Carol, the Weldon Springs Foundation wants to continue as many of her programs as possible. To help us honor Carol's memory, please consider becoming an active member of the Weldon Springs Foundation.


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(Last updated: 9/16/2015, cjw)