The Schlitz Audubon Nature Center is transitioning to new leadership. After 19 years of service to the center and its community of supporters, Elizabeth (Buffy) Cheek has decided to retire. Replacing Cheek as executive director is Nathan Smallwood, who handled similar duties at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, OH.
Cheek, who began working for the center in 1992, has been its executive director since 1997.
“I enjoyed everything about the center,” Cheek said. ”It’s a wonderful place and the mission is very pertinent today to connect people with nature. I can see the differences in people and in children when they come. It’s a very remarkable thing that happens to kids when they’re outdoors. Stress is less and the joy of discovery and wonder is very visible. I will miss coming to work and not hearing laughter and little kids’ cries of delight.”
In Cincinnati, Smallwood served as the museum’s director of institutional advancement, overseeing all fundraising for the museum and managing the marketing department. During his tenure, he obtained some of the largest operating gifts in the museum’s history. Fundraising will continue to be one of his major responsibilities for the nature center.
“All non-profits struggle with the economic challenges in getting funding and going forward we always have to look for sources of support,” Smallwood said. “One thing that’s great about this area is the number of people and organizations that are involved in environmental education and conservation. Maintaining a position of leadership among a good crowd and nice group of people that are working towards common goals is always going to be a challenge.”
A family affair
Smallwood, his wife, Julie, and their two sons, 7 year-old Jack and 4 year-old Wolf, will be connected to the center in more ways than one.
“My son, Wolf, will be in the nature preschool here,” he said. “So what an experience for me, to connect early on, not only as director of this institution but as a parent and somebody who actually is using the programs.”
The SANC preschool teaches mixed classes of 3, 4 and 5 year-olds to explore and love the natural world, and have some fun in the process. It’s the only nature preschool in the state and it remains a continuing source of pride for Cheek.
“The nature preschool has been an extremely wonderful risk that we took that’s been extremely successful,” she said. “We have 160 kids that come all year long to the nature preschool and it has reaped benefits for those involved, the parents, kids and for people buying into our mission in taking care of the natural world.”
Smallwood, who officially began his duties Aug. 29, says he will soon be working with the SANC board on a new strategic plan for the center.
“We’re sort of contained here with our current property but I think considering our role in the larger regional conservation movement is important,” said Smallwood. “Our continued leadership in environmental education will guide us as we look forward to new initiatives.”
Savoring the memories
Meanwhile, Cheek says she is looking forward to her retirement but has no immediate plans. First, she wants to have a rest period to think about what she would like to do in retirement and to savor the memories of her work at the nature center.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve done when I was here,” Cheek said. “When I started, we were in a little building in the woods that was falling apart and was moldy and had mushrooms growing in the carpeting. We built a wonderful new building that opened in 2003 and was the greenest building in Wisconsin when we built it. So we were ahead of the curve and we’ve been a teaching building for thousands and thousands of people who have come, general visitors and architects and engineers, to see how green buildings work.”