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Outdoor educator served 30 year with Metroparks
Outdoor educator served 30 year with Metroparks
By SUE REID
After a 30-year career with the Cleveland Metroparks, where he has served as chief naturalist and chief of outdoor education, Solon resident Robert D. Hinkle said it is the areas of peace and tranquility within the parks that continue to inspire him.
"It's a place of reconnection, a sanctuary," Dr. Hinkle said of the park system where he has worked since 1982. "There's a spiritual connectedness."
Dr. Hinkle, who holds a doctorate in wildlife biology with a specialization in conservation education from Michigan State University, recently announced his retirement, effective next spring. A nationwide search will be conducted to find his replacement.
The 10-year Solon resident is credited with building program attendance at the Metroparks to nearly a half million visitors in more than 5,400 programs. Along with his staff, he has also more than doubled the number of nature and visitor centers from three to six, with a seventh to be added next year.
Author of more than 300 monthly columns in the park district's magazine, the Emerald Necklace, his major contribution to recreation, he said, was developing the Institution of the Great Outdoors in 1989. A summer camp for adults year around, the institution offers a variety of things, including instruction on fly and salmon fishing, as well as outdoor skills for adults, to name a few.
Dr. Hinkle personally leads summer and fall canoe floats as part of this program.
"It's a fun, quiet time to get people out to see the natural world around them," he said.
Most of Dr. Hinkle's work outside of the programming was operating the outdoor education division of Cleveland Metroparks.
"We started out with seven people and now we are near 70," he said. "It has been a great career."
Dr. Hinkle's original title at the Metroparks was chief naturalist, and that changed to chief of outdoor education. He is last chief naturalist of the Cleveland Metroparks from a line of five.
Dr. Hinkle said he considers himself "one more link in the chain" of the Metropark's ongoing heritage of conservation and outdoor education.
"There will be people after me and after them," he said.
An interpretive naturalist with prominent leadership roles with the National Association for Interpretation, Dr. Hinkle said, his ongoing goal through his career was to "reveal the larger facts behind what's happening in nature to help people see the interconnectedness of all the living and non-living things that support them.
"The goal of it is not so much education as it is revelation," he said. "There are thrills every day in the outdoors. We just have to build time in our lives to participate.
"Most people grow up in suburban, urban areas and don't see or feel a connection with nature," he said. "The reality is our lives are completely intertwined with nature."
In addition to the physical and biological side, there is also a spiritual side of sharing nature with people that Dr. Hinkle has reveled in over the years.
"No one ever got goose bumps on the back of their neck seeing a golf ball," he said, "but show a child a deer in the forest and the goose bumps become pretty evident."
Dr. Hinkle said that over the years he has tried to teach the value of wild places and wild things. He has worked to promote the preservation of natural areas that are becoming more and more scarce, he said.
"That is the core of what we do in the Cleveland Metroparks," he said. "We have to take care of our heritage or we won't have one."
Each member of his staff whom he has hired share that same dedication of preserving the green space and adding to it where they can, Dr. Hinkle said.
Dr. Hinkle noted that almost all of the programming for youth and adults he and his staff have developed at the Metroparks are free.
"The Cleveland Metroparks have become everyone's backyard," Dr. Hinkle said. "When we were growing up, there were vacant lots in places that you can run and play and a lot of that's gone. The Cleveland Metroparks is the only source of that kind of opportunity, not just for kids but for adults as well."
Dr. Hinkle's love of the outdoors stems from birth, he said.
"My parents both hunted and fished and hiked," Dr. Hinkle recalled. "Summers were spent on local lakes, fishing for bass and blue gale, and fall was hunting time."
Growing up in a rural community, Dr. Hinkle's childhood was spent playing with fish, frogs, turtles "and critters of all kinds."
Before joining Cleveland Metroparks, he was chairman and field station program director in the department of environmental and scientific studies at Johnson State College in Vermont and also served on the faculty of the department of fisheries and wildlife at Michigan State University.
He will retire to allow for new direction, new energy and ideas at the park, he said.
"In all the years I've been here, I've been about change and trying to grow, improve and make things better," he said. A nationally certified instructor in environmental interpretation and certified interpretive trainer, Dr. Hinkle said that he may go back to teaching environmental interpretation to people who might want to become park naturalists.
"There's always teaching to be done," he said.
His overall philosophy, he said, is that "it's always experiences we remember, it's never things.
"We live in a world where value is measured by dollars, but there is no way to put value in dollars of a sunset over Lake Erie, or the beauty of snowshoeing through the woods in South Chagrin," he said.
"There's no way to put a value on that, but when our lives are done, those are the things we remember."
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