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Article updated: 2/14/2013 6:32 PM

Longtime Glen Ellyn volunteer transformed Prarie Path

By Christopher Placek

Jean Mooring is being remembered by family and friends for her passion for environmental issues -- from the moment she arrived in the suburbs, until her very last days.

The longtime Glen Ellyn volunteer, who died Feb. 4 at age 86, was instrumental in helping transform an abandoned railroad right of way into what would become the Illinois Prairie Path, a 61-mile trail for hiking, biking and horseback riding that stretches from Cook to DuPage and Kane counties.

Jean put together petition drives and attended board meetings in the 1960s to get elected officials in Wheaton, Glen Ellyn and Villa Park to support a path, instead of using the space for parking for their downtown areas.

"There was reaction, but they eventually listened to her and provided a place for the Prairie Path," said her husband, Paul, who served as president of the Illinois Prairie Path Corp. for 21 years.

Even years after the couple worked to develop the path, they were still known to regularly pick up trash and prune trees on a -mile section of the trail they adopted near their Glen Ellyn home.

"If it wasn't for Jean there wouldn't be a Prairie Path," said Bob Sobie, a board member and past president of the Illinois Prairie Path Corp. "She was a force to be reckoned with … She was a mover and shaker up until the very end."

Funeral arrangements for Jean were private, but Sobie said the Prairie Path group is planning a memorial celebration this summer in her honor. It comes at the same time the organization will be commemorating the trail's 50th anniversary.

When the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railroad, known as the "Roarin' Elgin," was shuttered in 1963, retired Morton Arboretum naturalist May Theilgaard Watts came to area garden clubs to gauge support for developing the path. One of those clubs was Jean's.

She and other members helped establish the Illinois Prairie Path Corp. as a not-for-profit group in 1965. The group leased the right of way from DuPage County and started clearing it of debris.

"It was a dump from one end to the other," Jean said in a 2007 Daily Herald article that named her and her husband among the top 10 most influential environmentalists in DuPage County history. "It was amazing how fast it started to fill up with trash after the abandonment."

Over the years Jean, her husband and other group members helped clean the trail, build bridges and install signs and benches. The Moorings sponsored their area of the trail between Hill Avenue and the east branch of the DuPage River since the beginning.

"They were very proud of that section in Glen Ellyn," Sobie said. "Even up until the end that's what they were doing. They'd empty the garbage can and bring (the trash) to their home."

Jean said in the 2007 article that her passion for nature came from her father, who loved to do just about anything outdoors. Growing up in Madison, Wis., she tended to wildflowers, rare plants and a large old white oak in her family's backyard.

After earning a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Wellesley College, Jean went on to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pursue graduate studies. There she met Paul, who was pursuing a Ph.D. and teaching a lab class in which Jean was enrolled.

They married in 1948, and moved to the Chicago area in 1951 when Paul was hired as a physics researcher at Argonne National Laboratory. They lived in the same Glen Ellyn house since 1958.

Both were involved in other local groups, including the DuPage Environmental Commission and the Conservation Foundation, which awarded the couple with its first Paul Butler Memorial Award in 1989 to recognize their volunteer service.

Brook McDonald, the foundation's president and CEO, said Jean was the more outspoken of the two -- like a "pit bull" when she got her mind on an issue -- but she did it with class.

"They would come to meetings together and Jeannie would get all upset about something, and she would start rattling off," McDonald said. "Everyone would look at Paul when Jean would go off on one of her rants and he'd have a big smile on his face. Every once in a while he'd tap her on the shoulder and say, 'Now, Jeannie.' And she'd say, 'No Paul, this is serious.'

"She was passionate about this stuff."

Jean is survived by her husband, three daughters, five grandchildren and two great-grand children.

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