Losing a friend is a tough experience. Losing a friend who was an inspiration, a mentor, and a champion for the natural world is exceptionally hard.
Retired naturalist Jack Pomatto of St. Charles died on Thursday, June 12, after a valiant fight against cancer. The loss is felt by many in the naturalist community and in the community at large. The emptiness of loss is countered by the tremendous amount that we all gained from his time with us. He enriched our lives with his knowledge, his humor, and his passion for the beauty of the natural world. A farewell to Jack would not be complete without acknowledgment of all that he gave to us.
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See Jack's workA selection of Jack Pomatto's best wildlife photography is on display at Creek Bend Nature Center at LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve, 37W700 Dean St., St. Charles. For nature center hours, see www.kaneforest.com.
Jack Pomatto came to work as a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County after retiring from classroom teaching at Lake Park High School. He transitioned from 31 years of teaching history within the walls of a school building, to teaching about nature in the big classroom without walls -- the great outdoors. He readily donned khakis, a big hat, and binoculars for his new role.
I recall Jack's first day on the job at Tekakwitha Woods Nature Center in St. Charles, when we had the first of many lively discussions. The conversation began with the topic of bird coloration. It wasn't a simple matter of one bird being red and one bird being blue. No, Jack described the intricate detail of feather pigmentation, refraction of light, and the astounding diversity of patterns in the avian world. Then, the conversation evolved into the topic of evolution itself, adaptive radiation, and other fascinating subjects.
This chat was just the tip of the iceberg. For the ensuing decade, Jack brought a wealth of knowledge and keen insight to the staff, and there were many intriguing discussions. His descriptions of the wonders of nature were spellbinding. He made us want to know more. He stretched our thinking and opened our minds.
It's not just staff who benefited from Jack, of course. He shared his knowledge with a diverse audience, from preschool students to senior citizens and every age in between. He was apt to bend down to kid-level to reveal the inner structure of a flower -- or to project his voice so that the hardest-of-hearing seniors could hear his description of a cool bird.
"Look at the caterpillar on the bottom of this leaf," he once said to a group of rapt third-graders. "It's been parasitized by a wasp. And that wasp has been parasitized by another wasp."
"Cool!" "Gross!" and "Awesome!" were the instantaneous replies.
With seniors, Jack hooked their attention with anecdotes and humor. He loved to tell stories about the bizarre courtship behaviors of birds and the not-so-tall tales about the world of microbes. Jack's teaching through revelation heightened awareness of students young and old.
Jack was an all-around naturalist with insatiable curiosity about every aspect of the natural world. But birding was Jack's thing. He had an eye and an ear for anything avian, and he was a walking field guide to birds. With just a glance at a bird before it disappeared in a thicket, or a faraway glimpse at a spec in the sky, Jack could identify the most challenging "U.F.O." A brief call note was easily deciphered by Jack's discerning ear, and he could recognize every repertoire of bird songs. Joking that the birder's most common phrase is, "There it goes!", Jack taught people to pick out key characteristics for quick identification. He sharpened our senses and our sensibility to all things avian.
Jack's bird-watching programs were hugely popular, not just because he could identify birds but because he could interpret the essence of birds. Each species has a story, and when Jack relayed the story his audience would truly learn about the bird. He infused wit and wisdom in his stories and always brought a chuckle to the learning process. He was great with the "wow-factor" of outrageous bird factoids, which he could tell by the dozen.
The red-eyed vireo can call up to 20,000 times a day, Jack was fond of telling. The wandering albatross spends 60 percent of its life in flight over the ocean and has to drink salt water, excreting salt through glands above its bill. The great-blue heron combs its breast feathers with a special claw on their middle toe, making a powder to dust on themselves, which helps keep their feathers mud-free.
Jack's limitless curiosity led him to explore all parts of the world. He returned from adventures in Central and South America, Africa, Australia, and the Galápagos Islands with marvelous tales and awesome photographs. He was the quintessential Peripatetic Naturalist who never tired of the quest to learn about the marvels of our planet.
Jack saw amazing birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, insects, and plants throughout his many travels. A historian by training, he studied the cultural history of each country he visited, and he interacted with people in a diverse array of cultures.
Despite seeing so many exotic wonders of the world, Jack was never bored with the flora and fauna of northern Illinois. Jack found just as much wonder and beauty in the local ecology of Kane County as he did on his travels in faraway places. I watched him share the excitement of a novice birder when she saw her first Baltimore oriole in breeding plumage at Tekakwitha Woods. It was no less exciting to him than seeing a tropical bird in Venezuela -- or if it was, he didn't let on! He knew the importance of those "firsts" for people new to the world of wildlife-watching.
Jack's enthusiasm and sense of wonder were contagious, and countless people caught the bug of loving nature from him. He was not just a teacher. He was a student of life and he inspired others to learn.
Although Jack's parting is a loss, his life was a gift to us all. My view through binoculars is forever changed. Thank you, Jack, and happy trails.
Valerie Blaine is the nature programs manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You many reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.