Prairie John

Wolf Road Prairie’s Steward for 22 years, John Banaszak, passed away May 21, 2020

From a young age, John showed an interest in wildlife. As a boy, he successfully nursed an injured crow back to health. Before long, it was perching on John’s shoulder, taking food from his hand and following him around the neighborhood. This lucky crow would not be the last animal he would nurse back to health. After receiving his first bike, much of his free time was spent exploring the still undeveloped wild places of Downers Grove. He often shared his fond memories of growing up in Downers. Perhaps, these boyhood experiences were what motivated John to initiate and spearhead the movement to save Lyman Woods, the center of his boyhood adventures.

He set his foot on his chosen path and never looked back. 

After finishing his formal education, John enrolled in a class at the Morton Arboretum. His teacher was none other than the great prairie advocate, Ray Schulenberg. Like many of Ray’s students, John caught the prairie bug. Through this patient and knowledgeable teacher, he not only learned about prairie plants, but also prairie ecology and management. He once confided that Ray Schulenberg and Rachel Carson were the two people he most admired.

Committed to saving the prairies that remained, John became Steward of Wolf Road Prairie. Through his studies and his own astute observations, he became the ideal gardener and protector of WRP. John soon led a faithful group of volunteers, who trusted both his knowledge of prairie plants and his judgment. Some of those workdays often felt like military missions, especially when noxious weeds were close to setting seed, time was of the essence. Whatever our target, John always took time to share his knowledge. Sometimes he did so by encouraging us to carefully examine a plant for its unique qualities. At other times, he challenged our memories, checking to see if we remembered previous lessons. The volunteer who first responded with the right answer inevitably evoked one of his broadly beautiful smiles. John’s knowledge of plants was deep, far beyond identification. By sharing what he had learned over the years, he was also motivating us to be passionate about preserving the prairie.

After a workday, we would enjoy refreshments on the deck or porch of the Prairie House. Inevitably, John turned our attention to the ever present birds. On countless evenings we were schooled in bird identification and bird behavior. From the porch, we would watch, with delight, the variety of birds showing up at the birdbath, noting how they responded to each other, which species was dominant and who had to wait for an opening to get a drink. We enjoyed Baltimore Orioles, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Robins, English Sparrows, Gold Finches, Hummingbirds and once in a great while, the elegant Cedar Waxwings. If we were on the deck, we listened for the call of the Willow Flycatcher or the more raucous calls of the Red-winged Blackbirds and occasionally, we enjoyed the flight of the Red-tailed hawk, or spotted a Blue Heron winging west to its evening roost. We never tired of the acrobatic flights of the Tree Swallows, and for one special year we even watched the daring flight of Barn swallows. Always, John was imparting his knowledge. Our understanding and appreciation of birds is, to a large extent, due to John’s contagious enthusiasm for all winged creatures.

John had a special way with children, tapping into their curiosity and their natural sense of wonder. During events on the Prairie House deck, he encouraged them to hold a Monarch Butterfly and then release it to the sky. Seeing their delight was gold for John. He would hold a preying mantis so they could see the wonder of it up close. All the time, he would be cracking jokes, evoking giggles and laughter. He always had time for their questions and would answer, by coating facts with humor. To John, the children were the most important guests at any event.

For many of us, John was our guide to the world of nature. The best way that we can honor his memory is by passing that knowledge on to a new generation.

R. Mc