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posted: 4/5/2013 6:00 AM

Naperville celebrates Prairie Path's 50th birthday

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  • The Illinois Prairie Path celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and covers 62 miles on converted railways.

      The Illinois Prairie Path celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and covers 62 miles on converted railways.
    Daily Herald File Photo

  • May Watts, who gave life to the Illinois Prairie Path, lived in Naperville for 35 years and was a naturalist at the Morton Arboretum.

      May Watts, who gave life to the Illinois Prairie Path, lived in Naperville for 35 years and was a naturalist at the Morton Arboretum.
    Courtesy of the Morton Arboretum

 

The other day I flashed back more than 20 years ago to the first time I visited May Watts Elementary School. We were house-hunting and deciding where to move in Naperville. We'd found a perfect house around the corner from the school, so I made an appointment with then-principal Fred Lacher for a tour.

Our youngest child was in fourth grade at the time and the right school was at the top of my priorities. Jeff had a tight network of friends in Chatham, N.J., where we lived, and he was comfortable in his elementary school. Unlike his older sister and brother who were OK with moving, Jeff openly expressed his hesitation.

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When I met with Mr. Lacher, he suggested what I thought was a brilliant idea. He offered to talk with Jeff on the phone prior to our move to help acquaint him with Naperville and answer any questions he might have about May Watts.

As we wrapped up my introduction to the school, I recall asking about the school's namesake, May Theilgaard Watts (1893-1975). That's when I learned a little about the naturalist, teacher, illustrator and writer who had worked at the Morton Arboretum, a 35-year Naperville resident who'd become the inspiration for the Illinois Prairie Path in 1963.

Can you believe the Illinois Prairie Path, now with 62 miles of trails along rails no longer in use, will celebrate 50 years this year?

At any rate, in the early 1990s, when I wanted to return to the Midwest to be closer to family, I'd been attracted to Naperville by North Central College, Naper Settlement and the sesquicentennial story of the Riverwalk. The multiple accounts of volunteer spirit fascinated me, too. Since our arrival here in March 1993, my passion for studying and experiencing this remarkable community where folks get behind many great initiatives has been recorded in this column and thousands of photographs.

The other day, Karen Solomon, president of the Riverwalk Foundation on which I serve, called with a tip about an upcoming event, "Experience the Illinois Prairie Path." Mary Jo Malach is on the board of the Illinois Prairie Path and she's planning a 50th anniversary celebration on May 18 at Madden Theater in the North Central College Fine Arts Center.

When Karen started to tell me about May Watts, I realized she was unaware that I live surrounded by the memory of the outstanding woman. Though Watts moved to Naperville in 1940 and had lived much of her adult life just east of downtown on Jefferson Avenue, our neighborhood is home to May Watts Elementary School and the natural landscape of May Watts Park. And quite by coincidence, last week homeowners in West Wind were notified that the May Watts Trail Path, approved last year, is set to begin development this spring in the park.

When I walk our dog, I often take photos of the wildlife in the park, too. In fact, next to the Riverwalk, I likely have more photos of May Watts Park than any other local park.

Karen, who has lived here almost her entire life, said she had little recollection about the strong Naperville connection to the Illinois Prairie Path.

Yet Karen said Mary Jo, who moved here two years ago, talks about the founders as though she has met them and known them through the years. Mary Jo is working with folks at Naper Settlement to locate photos and ways to connect how May Watts and others led extraordinary efforts to establish the path on an abandoned railroad line. Today, 62 miles of biking, hiking, jogging, equestrian and nature trails have been developed, protected and preserved for future generations.

The connections were endless.

Thoughts of May Watts led to other Naperville women from the past -- Hannah Ditzler, Jane Sindt, Marjorie Osborne, Barbara Ashley Seilaff, Genevieve Towsley and Rita Harvard, to name just a few -- and I'm mindful of many dedicated women and other determined risk takers who have inspired and made a difference here. Thanks to all!

• Stephanie Penick writes about Naperville in Neighbor. Email her at spennydh@aol.com.

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