While preparing his income taxes earlier this year, workaholic Stan Tekiela realized he had nine different revenue streams that combined to give him a living wage with benefits.
He’s decided to retire from one of those jobs, and it’s a big one. Jan. 2 will be his final day running the Eden Prairie Outdoor Center, also known as the Staring Lake Outdoor Center.
Thousands of Eden Prairie residents, from preschoolers to retirees, have learned about nature and the environment during his 24 years running the city-owned nature center, a historic log cabin and adjacent buildings located on the north side of Staring Lake, along with trails, an “edible playground,” and demonstration prairie.
Among Tekiela’s memorable accomplishments:
- He shifted the nature center from a recreation emphasis to environmental education.
- The nature center consistently hosts about 400 children in summer camps and more than 2,000 during the school year.
- Tekiela created an astronomy program anchored by the Staring Lake Observatory, which now has one of the largest telescopes in the state.
- Over 30 years and with the aid of local Scouts, he erected 80 bluebird boxes in six Eden Prairie parks, resulting in roughly 140 new bluebird fledglings per year.
- And he acquired the nature center’s first raptor, a barred owl named Whisper, who served as its educational ambassador for seven years before dying of natural causes in October.
“I’m old enough. And, it’s time,” Tekiela said about his retirement from the part-time city job.
“This place has been hand-built,” he added, sweeping his arm to show the interior of the nature center, filled with educational materials and terrariums holding snakes, turtles, and other reptiles. “It makes it hard to walk away from, ‘cause it’s my baby. But, it is time. And the center needs to grow. The center needs to have a fresh look, and a fresh director.”
Tekiela says he’ll 100% miss being the person behind Eden Prairie’s nature center, one of only four city-run nature centers in the Twin Cities area.
“This job has been one of the best things that’s happened to me. Scrapping and fighting for this place? I’ll miss that, too,” he said.
Building a program from scratch
Tekiela had already served for years as the naturalist for the Outdoor Center – teaching classes and leading lots of bird-watching and backpacking trips – when he was picked to be the program’s new director in 1999.
He immediately went to work making the program more about environmental education and changing its log-home headquarters to reflect that. The building had once been a senior citizen center, and still had vestiges of that, including low-hanging fluorescent lighting.
“The first five years was just redoing the infrastructure, with no budget,” he said. “Just redid everything. We had no lighting outside. For an outside class, you couldn’t even see your car at night.
“For a long time, it was just a one-man show,” he added, “and then we started to build it up to where we are now.” Today, it’s Tekiela and 10 part-time or seasonal employees, including two astronomers who lead two or three popular stargazing programs a month, all year long, using a 16-inch, computer-aided telescope funded with private donations.
When it came to starting programs and getting city funds, Tekiela would often act first and seek permission later. The Animal Junction classroom next to the Outdoor Center, for example, was once a garage.
“I cleaned it out and set it up for a classroom,” said Tekiela, “and put a sign on it, and said, ‘It’s Animal Junction. It’s our classroom. Now, we need to put some effort into this.’
“It’s the only way I could get anything done here.”
Born to be a naturalist?
Raised on Chicago’s west side, Tekiela’s mom was an environmental and civil rights activist, and his dad always dreamed of being a forester.
“Nature was always a big, big part of everything we did,” he said.
He started writing nature books, using a three-ring binder, when he was 12 or 13. He would take photos, have the film developed, and glue a photo into the book with nature information he had collected.
In 1976, he left home to attend the University of Minnesota. “I literally knew the moment I got here that I was in a place where I needed to be. Minnesota is so nature-oriented, so outdoors-oriented,” he explained.
He worked as a paramedic for Hennepin County while earning his degree in natural history, and began piecing together multiple outdoor- and naturalist-related jobs, including one that had him writing a newspaper column about nature.
Today, outside of his City of Eden Prairie job, Tekiela has built what looks to be a nature-related empire – in size, if not income.
He has his own company, NatureSmart. He’s become a renowned wildlife photographer, leading photo tours from Costa Rica to Alaska (and soon the Galapagos Islands). He’s written more than 200 books and field guides. A film company employs him to fly drones in order to capture moving images of wildlife and nature. He books 40 to 60 speaking engagements per year.
It’s not that Tekiela has blurred the line between his work life and his personal life. It’s that he has no personal life at all.
“I’m not any smarter than anybody; in fact, I’m probably not as smart as most people,” he said. “I just simply outwork everybody. And when you work harder than anyone else, you can accomplish all those things.
“I think everybody is born with an innate curiosity for nature, a wonder of nature, a kinship with nature,” he added. “And somewhere, about the ‘tweens, it goes away. It never did for me. I’m still to this day as fascinated with nature as when I was a little kid. So, 40 years of doing this stuff and it’s still as interesting to me.”
As he enters the final days of his career with the City of Eden Prairie, Tekiela is grateful for all that’s come his way.
“I believe that Eden Prairie Parks and Rec is without a doubt the best park and rec system around,” he said. “You cannot find a better place. Eden Prairie Parks and Rec is the pinnacle. And it has been such an absolute pleasure working here, and to see all that happen.
“This job has been one of the best things that’s happened to me.”
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