After 18 years as director of the Merrill School Forest, Mary Wendorf is retiring this summer. The school forest torch is being passed to Russ Noland, most recently the lead teacher at Maple Grove Charter School.
Russ and Mary first met when Russ visited the School Forest with his youngest daughter’s class. Russ had resigned from his previous job to be a stay-at-home dad. Noticing his ability to relate to children, Mary said he should consider becoming a teacher. Russ replied that his dream job in education would be as director of the Merrill School Forest.
A couple of weeks later as he was helping out in his daughter Morgan’s classroom, two of his daughter’s friends ran up to him and grabbed his legs. They asked if he would be their “adopted dad.”
“And I started crying. That was like the epiphany, the changing point,” Russ said. “That was really my driving passion. I wanted to interact with kids at a younger age.”
Russ went on to get his teaching degree and started substitute teaching for Merrill Area Public Schools. He then secured a full-time teaching assignment, teaching at both Washington Elementary and Prairie River Middle School.
He then went full-time as a teacher at Pine River Elementary School. One of the highlights for Russ there was overseeing the chicken coop project, in which students raised and cared for live chickens.
One of his greatest joys as an educator, Russ said, is “getting kids to connect with nature, whether it’s the forest or with chickens on the farm.”
After Pine River closed, Russ moved to Maple Grove, which was another good fit for him as the charter school’s curriculum is based on expeditionary learning. At Maple Grove, students have an opportunity to do a lot of hands-on learning in the outdoors.
When Mary announced her retirement, Russ was first in line for the school forest position.
“There was some strategy put in place,” Russ said. “I love the school forest. I wanted to make sure that people in the community and district administrators knew that I’m passionate about the work that’s been done out there so when it was time to change roles I could share my passion.”
At the end of the school year, nearly every kid will say the highlight of their year was going to the school forest.
“I want to be able to keep continuing to provide those opportunities,” Russ said. “There’s so much there that I as a parent when I took my kids and started falling in love with the school forest, this is what I want for my kids. This is what I want to provide for the community, for other kids.
“What I’m really hoping is we develop advocates for really understanding and maintaining the resources that nature gives us. I often tell people that I don’t want to create the tree hugger, but I want people to think about the resources before they hastily waste them,” he added.
Mary just finished her 26th year with MAPS. Prior to her tenure at the school forest, she taught science at the old Merrill Junior High.
“I wanted that job (as school forest director),” Mary said. “It’s a great fit for me.”
The construction of the pond and cordwood environmental shelter, along with the remodeling of the lodge, are among some of the significant improvements to the property that have occurred under Mary’s direction. A complete remodeling of the lodge kitchen is underway this summer.
“I go around to other school forests and we are the best,” Mary said. “No pat on the back for me, but I make sure we are the best.
“Far beyond what I ever imagined is where that place has gone and a lot of that is due to (School Forest benefactor) Jack Lussier and the Friends of the Forest,” Mary added, “through their help and generosity and willingness to take an idea and go with it.”
The school forest, properly named the Nels P. Evjue Memorial Forest, encompasses 780 acres. The land was donated to the school district in 1944 by William Evjue, an 1899 Merrill graduate, in memory of his father, Nels, a Merrill pioneer lumberman.
“Right now we’re using all of it,” Mary said.
“There are only a handful of days during the school year that students are not out there,” Russ added. “Those are work days to prep from one grade level to the next.”
Every grade level, pre-K through 8, visits the school forest at least once a year. Students from Merrill High School are also involved as workers at the school forest.
Because the school forest director is mostly occupied with education, partnerships with the community are vital to accomplish other projects on the property, Russ said.
The Friends of the School Forest was created by Mary and retired Junior High teacher Bill Lussenhop. A foundation was established to manage donations to the school forest that can’t be used by the district for any other purpose.
“Now we have an avenue for people to donate,” Mary said.
The pond, the fishing project, the road and the Hydrolab were all obtained through Wisconsin Environmental Education Board (WEEB) grants.
Russ and Mary are currently working together on the summer programming at the school forest. Last week, a group of students worked with the new Hydrolab, taking water quality samples.
“You couldn’t get much more hands-on than we’ve been the past two days,” Russ said.
As an educator at the school forest, Mary has viewed her role as a facilitator or a partner in learning.
“You’re sharing the experiences with them,” she said. “You’re learning right alongside of them.”
As an example, Russ cited the current project with the brand new Hydrolab.
“We’ve actually figured out some really neat stuff with it so far, but the kids know that we’re learning with them and they’re okay with that,” Russ said. “They’re asking the good questions and they’re trying to figure out the pieces with us.”
“To me,” Mary added, “the most vital changes our society, our culture and our world need to make is with natural resources. Water is going to be the new gold, the new oil. I’m hoping we’re raising children right now that are going to answer those questions. We’re the only district in the state that owns this tool.”
Mary delayed her retirement so she could participate in the summer program with the Hydrolab. Her last official day with the district is July 17.
As for the future of the school forest, Russ is aiming to maintain what has been established and carry on the traditions.
“My mind has been racing with different opportunities and different options, but I know this first year I’ll have my hands full getting my feet on the ground,” Russ said.
Strengthening partnerships with school forest advocates and community member will be a focus for Russ in the coming year.
Mary recently spent 21 days in Nicaragua and witnessed first-hand the global water problem. During her retirement, Mary plans to further her humanitarian work in Nicaragua, which has included delivering donated school supplies to a remote village. She has also helped another community of 50 homes get ready for Engineers without Borders to install a water system.
“Nicaragua is very much in my heart,” she said. “I love these people.”
Closer to home, Mary is an expectant grandmother and will be helping her daughter in Minnesota with the new baby.