I was the very first Associate Director in the Save the Prairie Society, and was nominated by John Banaszak circa 1987, after years of his tutelage in natural history when I was much younger.
I met Mr. Banaszak in the 6th grade; I took an elective class on nature that he was teaching. On the very first day, he showed the kids all the classroom pets and plants. The pots and tanks and cages were stacked all along the walls, one after another. (We all know how John Banaszak liked to collect and keep things. It was the same way in his classroom.) In one special aquarium was a creature that Mr. Banaszak said ‘nobody had ever seen and would never know what it was.’ It was a little underwater worm covered in pebbles that crawled along the bottom. He pointed it out for the entire class. I walked up and matter-of-factly said, “That is a caddis fly larva…” He spun around, his mouth wide open in shock, and yelled out, “WHO ARE YOU?!? No student has ever identified that!” We were friends from that day forward and did many nature-oriented activities together, often with his daughters: we visited Wolf Road Prairie and other refuge sites, collected rare plants and seeds, planted flowers, hiked and birdwatched. John Banaszak–affectionately called “Mr. B” by his friends and students–encouraged me to keep studying nature and to “learn something new every day.” That was a favorite saying of his. We even ate lunch and went roller-skating together with his family. After middle school graduation, Mr. B wrote a recommendation that I should be enrolled in honors biology courses in high school because of my aptitude for science, which the school administration allowed. I was a top science student from that moment on.
Those of us that worked with Mr. B in the field also knew that he had a competitive edge. Mr. B was a botanist, and I was primarily a birder, but he made sure that I knew prairie plants from an early age. Later, when I was visiting Illinois over summer break (I was a student at the University of Wyoming at the time and still a teenager), Mr. B invited me to “find some prairie plants” that were endangered. The site was going to be developed and all the plant life within it destroyed. Mr. B and several well-known university professors from the Chicago-land area planned to meet at the site to collect and transfer rare plants to alternate refuge sites. I came at Mr. B’s last-minute request. I was introduced to several men that I didn’t know and Mr. B stated, “This is Stacia. She is going to find the plants for us….” He mentioned several species, including the Prairie Puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), which I had never seen. I answered, “If you want me to find this plant, I need to see what it looks like…” One professor cautiously reached into his car and pulled out a little pot with a tiny green sprig in it. He held it in front of me and I instantly developed a search image of that plant. It was not flowering then, and I concentrated on the leaf morphology. I ran out over the field, sweeping back and forth and low like a harrier, looking for puccoons. Every time I found one, I shouted and marked the place until one of the scientists came to collect it. In the end, I found at least a dozen; whereas Mr. B and the others found just one each. Mr. B exclaimed afterwards, “I told you she would find them…” Looking back, I believe Mr. B set up that meeting. John Banaszak—supposedly a mere junior high school teacher—had trained a biology student so well that she could best professional botanists! To this day, I wonder if those professors remember me and Mr. B?
I ultimately earned 2 Bachelor’s degrees, one that majored in Biology, and a Master’s Degree in Biology. I graduated Summa Cum Laude. My Master’s thesis examined the evolution of bird beaks and I’m currently in the process of revising the results for an academic paper. As a graduate student, I presented at a science conference and won 1st place in Zoology.
I performed conservation work throughout my life all over the world: in foreign countries with the military, at refuges and parks, and for governmental agencies and non-profits (notably, The Peregrine Fund and Audubon Society). My accomplishments and experiences were published by the: American Birding Association, North American Falconers Association, Illinois State Academy of Science, American Falconry, and Wilson Journal of Ornithology. I held state and federal licenses for falconry, bird banding and museum taxidermy. I currently prepare museum bird skins for several Illinois universities.
I attribute many of those accomplishments to Mr. Banaszak. He encouraged my love of birds, nature and science when nobody else did. Back then, it was considered unusual for a girl to be involved in science. In fact, I was continuously ridiculed and bullied for my interests by other students and Mr. Banaszak protected me while in grade school. He transferred me to his home room class so he could personally watch over me. Even my own father criticized me for “spending too much time playing with birds”….and told me to “grow up, stop being a tomboy and act like a girl.”
I might not have remained loyal to my interests if it wasn’t for Mr. Banaszak. We were friends for 40 years, and our friendship always revolved around wildlife. Just 3 years before he passed away, we went birdwatching together and waded in the ponds of Hickory Lane to catch frogs. Of course, we put the frogs in jars to keep as “pets.” I brought mine home to President Larry Godson’s house and the frogs escaped during the night! We had to turn over all his furniture, looking for the lost frogs, to recapture them. Larry was annoyed, but I just laughed, because Mr. B had encouraged me to do it. As old as we were, Mr. B and I were still poking around in mud holes and catching frogs. That memory is the best way to remember him. I’m still a kid at heart, with a passion for nature and birds, because of him. Mr. B will be missed.