WESTVILLE — Friends of the late Marilyn Campbell are delighted that a trail is being renovated in her honor at Forest Glen Preserve.
“It’s a testament to Marilyn, her work and her life,” said Suzanne Smith, president of the Middlefork Audubon Society. “We’re excited to break ground and make this possible for the community.”
Middlefork Audubon, Vermilion County Conservation District and the Vermilion County Conservation Foundation launched the Marilyn F. Campbell Memorial Appeal in June to raise money for the project.
The goal of the first phase was to raise $28,300 to rebuild and improve the Beech Grove Handicap Trail within Forest Glen and the Russell M. Duffin Nature Preserve in the county.
The appeal has been a big success, with donations pouring in from all over the country to honor Campbell.
“She’s been the face of the district for many years,” Amy Steeples, program secretary with the district, said, and has touched many lives.
Due to a wet spring, work has not started yet on the trail.
Campbell, who died Sept. 21, 2017, was hired by the conservation district in 1969 and became its first director of education and programs in 1972. When she joined the district, Forest Glen was a fledgling park, and much had to be done.
Besides her work as a naturalist, Campbell was executive director of the Illinois Audubon Society and an active member of the Middlefork chapter. She also was a certified evaluator for Therapy Dogs International and brightened residents’ lives at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System.
The first phase of the project includes resurfacing the asphalt trail to a 5-foot width, replacing the bench overlooking the wooded ravine, repainting fencing and adding a dedication plaque.
The plaque will be attached to a large rock found by district naturalist Nick Jeurissen.
“What’s interesting about the stone is that when you look at it, it looks like the face of an owl,” Smith said. “That was a delight to her friends.”
Campbell was passionate about owls, and her license plate said “barn owl.”
In fact, district naturalist Susan Biggs Warner said something unusual happened a couple of weeks ago: Two people on different dates spotted an owl, which could have been a barn owl — a rare sight in Forest Glen.
In her 37 years with the district, Biggs Warner said she’s never seen the barn owl with its distinctive heart-shaped face. (However, the barred owl is common.)
When the people described the owl to birders, the experts said the description fits that of a barn owl.
“We’re excited about the possibility of it being a real barn owl,” Biggs Warner said, stressing that it is an unconfirmed sighting.
Besides the appeal for donations, the Wheeler Foundation awarded a $20,000 grant. The foundation helps with projects for people with disabilities.
Middlefork, the district and the foundation have all pledged funds, services or equipment to the project.
Any additional funds will be used for Phase II. As funds allow, work will continue on the handicapped-accessible picnic area, restroom and parking. If further funds become available, the district staff would like to add interpretive signs along the trail.
“We’ve been wonderfully surprised at the generous donations,” Smith said. “People have been very generous.”
She and others were hoping that work could begin this spring; however, the earlier rains have delayed that.
Once the work is finished, there will be a dedication ceremony.
“It’s worth the wait,” Smith said.
Nearly 40 years ago, Campbell hired a young man, Mike Reddy, who used a wheelchair. He enjoyed helping when she led children into the woods to study nature, but he couldn’t go on the trail.
Still, the children would gather around him to talk about nature. Campbell recognized his talent with children and persuaded the conservation district to develop the Beech Grove Trail for people with disabilities.
When the one-third-mile trail was completed in 1976, Reddy was able to lead hikers into the woods.
Over time, the trail deteriorated as tree roots lifted and broke the asphalt surface, and it’s no longer considered handicapped-accessible.
With the renovations, everyone will be able to enjoy the trail, whether in a wheelchair, using a cane or walker or with a small child in a stroller.
“It’s not just for the handicapped,” Smith said, adding that senior citizens regularly walk the trail.
When Campbell became ill in 2017, she asked friends to drive her to Forest Glen. On good days, she would walk the trail, which brought her many fond memories.
“It’s wonderful to have something at the park to honor her,” Biggs Warner said.