Eco-trailblazer Calls It A Career He Began Back When Green Wasn't Cool.

Posted: January 01, 1997

Thirty-one years ago, Richard L. James and his wife wanted to buy a new car. The loan officer asked him what he did, and James replied, ``I'm an ecologist.'' Then he went on to explain, which you had to do in those days.

Later, he got a chance to glance at his loan application, and he saw what the man had gleaned from their conversation. Where the application asked for James' profession, the loan officer had written: ``Birdwatcher.''

Add environmentalist, educator, meteorologist, promoter, quotemeister and a couple dozen other nouns, and the loan officer might have gotten it just about right in describing the first and, to this point, only executive director of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.

But after 32 years on the job, Dick James has retired. Yesterday was his last day.

How do you spend your waning hours in a job you have held and loved and been totally identified with for more than three decades?

``Cleaning,'' James said this week with trademark bite.

Balding, with wisps of hair crisscrossing his head, glasses and a cackling laugh, even at his own (frequent) punch lines, the 60-year-old James did, indeed, clean. But he also talked and reminisced, willingly showing off one of his favorite places at the center, Wind Dance Pond (``the second pond we ever built''), and even posing for pictures in the library before a portrait of a bird.

Kind of ironic, he snorted: ``On my last day, what am I doing? Taking pictures in front of a bird. . . . And I'm not going to get a car loan out of it, either.''

No, no car loan, but plenty of accolades, surely.

Since 1965, James has not only directed the center, off Hagy's Mill Road in Upper Roxborough, but he also has helped build and expand it, nurture it, teach others about it, raise money for and promote it, and inspire respect for environmental education.

``He has been the center,'' said center chairman John W. Church Jr., adding that James would be remembered for ``unbounding energy, his love for the place and his dedication.''

``He's probably put in longer hours than anyone could imagine,'' Church said.

Figure 80 to 95 hours a week.

During his tenure, the center has gone from an 11-acre nature preserve (created the same year he was hired to direct it) to a 500-acre tract. It contains more than 800 varieties of plants and trees, 35 animal species, the nation's largest private collection of children's books on natural history and environmental science (in its library), and a Wildlife Rehabilitation Center that treats 4,000 animals a year.

About 80,000 people visit annually, many of them children. The center has an annual operating fund of $1 million, 16 full-time employees and a handsome stucco and cinderblock headquarters, with James' spacious office downstairs.

Not bad for a guy who started running the center out of the back of his Volkswagen Beetle.

But he's a hard grader. He would only give himself a B.

``Good Lord,'' James said, sitting comfortably at a large reading table in the library. ``After 32 years, I probably made every mistake that can be made. For me, it's always been a learning process. That's what kept me here so long.''

He was 29, with a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Pennsylvania and a job teaching biology at Radnor High School, when he was hired as executive director.

He barely knew what a nature center was. He told his wife he would probably last five years.

Then came ``Earth Day'' and the era when environmentalists were almost celebrities. The center established the city's first organic-gardening program in 1971 and the first teacher resource center for environmental education two years later. It began a graduate program in environmental education and devised a curriculum for the Philadelphia school district. A standardized regional curriculum is almost completed.

And James has stayed on.

He got a reputation for being wry, realistic and opinionated, even when it came to discussing such controversial topics as population control and deer. Animal lovers tend to get very protective when people start talking about reducing the herds. James talked about it, anyway.

He also got a reputation for hard work. While directing the center, James has given regular weather reports to the Phillies and to listeners of WFLN-FM (95.7), written a weekly newspaper column, lectured all over town, and taught graduate classes, a source of joy that he intends to continue. He has even been known to lick envelopes.

``Whatever it takes to get the job done,'' said Claire Holmes, his secretary for the last 10 1/2 years.

In the early days of the center, James was always out of the office. There were trails to build and children to teach.

Gradually, however, as environmentalism ceased to be the cause of the moment, his job promoting the outdoors brought him inside. A bigger organization required more administrative attention and more money, too. All nonprofits find themselves competing for scarcer resources, James said.

``It's a terrible, awful reality. You need someone who's going to be out there beating the bushes with everyone else,'' he said. ``You've got to get out there and hustle.''

Ask him what he's proud of at the center, and he will tell you, without hesitation, about the people he has worked with. Some went on to pilot other nature centers. ``Extraordinary people have come through here,'' he said.

Extraordinary people have also made the place ``one of the few centers devoted to environmental education for urban dwellers,'' James said, and he is proud of that.

For several years, he has talked about retiring. He wants to finish a book and then write another. He hasn't had a weekend off in 10 years.

``I want to get out of here before I'm an old person,'' he said. ``I don't want to be carried out.''

The center's board of trustees has asked the Conservation Co., a consulting company, to organize a search for a new director who could be selected by the spring. In the meantime, Michele Hentz, the center's former director of finance and administration, has been named acting executive director.

If there is one message James said he would like to leave the center, it is that ``change is the rule.''

``What you did last year might have been lovely, exciting, thrilling, grand, but it ain't tomorrow,'' he said.

``As long as the center sticks to its mission of education . . . , he added, ``then even as it goes through incredible changes, we'll be fine.''

On the rim of Wind Dance Pond, he followed some geese and then watched as they slid silently into the dark, green water and glided away. He took a seat and surveyed the trails, the leafless trees, the water, like a king surveying his realm.

``I'll still come back here,'' he said thoughtfully.

Then he grinned: ``It's where I've had some of my most evil thoughts,'' and he laughed gleefully.

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