Chi Lives: Pete Dring and his Little Red School House | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Chi Lives: Pete Dring and his Little Red School House

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Mating season is on, and Pete Dring has been on the lookout for the white-tailed doe with the broken leg. She's been limping around for months, ever since she was struck by a car while crossing Willow Springs Road. If she can't, as Dring puts it, "support a hot buck on only one leg," then she probably won't be strong enough to survive the winter. So far she's been able to find some food, probably left by the children who spot her in the woods.

But it's getting colder, and fewer visitors will be stopping by the Little Red School House Nature Center, where Dring works and where the doe has sought refuge. Dring might have to quietly put her out of her misery. "The kids around here think it's Bambi," he says. "Nobody wants to be the one to shoot her."

As director of the nature center, located in the southwest suburb of Willow Springs, just south of 95th Street, Dring has to be pragmatic.

When the Cook County Forest Preserve District opened the Little Red School House as a nature center in 1955, Dring was still a botany student at DePaul University. Two years later, he took over as the center's director and has been on the job ever since.

The schoolhouse itself is located in the middle of a 14,000-acre preserve. Carved out of that, the nature center consists of 500 acres of woods, sloughs, and trails, which are open to visitors year-round.

The house was built in 1886 to replace a one-room log cabin that served as the first school building in the Palos Hills area. Classes were held there until 1948. Eventually, the tiny house and its 1.6-acre site were sold for $600 to the Forest Preserve District, which moved the building in 1952 to its current location in a fruit orchard, where pear, apple, and plum trees still stand.

Except for Dring's closet-sized office in one corner, the house is one cozy room with a warmth to the aged oak floors and wooden showcases. Looking up at the ceiling, however, can be alarming. A stuffed hawk mounted overhead seems ready to swoop down on visitors. A kestrel eyes you hungrily. Ducks and doves, all stuffed, just sit and stare. A large deer head hangs above the door.

Live animals move about in aquariums and cages. Dring has filled the place with fish, frogs, cottontail rabbits, and enough snakes to make your skin crawl (bull, garter, fox, and coin varieties). Along one wall hundreds of bees buzz in a man-made hive.

Whiskey III, the resident crow, bounces back and forth. Over the past 30 years, Dring has given the name Whiskey to about five or six crows. Unless he changes the sign, all subsequent crows will be named Whiskey III, too. One Whiskey escaped from his cage and went through the window fan in an aborted freedom flight. The fan has since been removed.

A red fox jumps at the blond boy crouched and peering into its cage. The friendliest animal is a fat raccoon, playfully trying to bite through its wire mesh.

At the age of 54, Dring has turned into a jack-of-all-trades. His main job is to interpret the local natural history for the general public. He also builds exhibits, cages animals, and maintains the nature trails. With 700 to 800 grade school groups visiting each year, often two per day, Dring has to know the names of bugs, how to identify a bird by its call, and where baby rabbits can be found.

Working around thousands of children has given him a sarcastic but strangely gentle sense of humor. "Oh, I could tell these kids just about anything," he says. "They wouldn't know the difference." He laughs, more to himself than to anyone else.

Right now there are only a handful of children wandering around. Dring stands by his office door, ready to answer questions. When one boy fingers a small skeleton, Dring looks eager to offer an explanation. "That's a bird's head," he tells the child. Later I check and confirm that he was telling the truth.

Before leaving through the back door, we grab a couple bags of corn to feed the ducks down at the slough. There are no organized activities here, but you can take one of two walks on paths: one takes 45 minutes and one takes 10. We opt for the easy one, which can also stretch into an afternoon if you want it to.

The air is musky, damp. Crickets chirp incessantly and cawing sounds surround you. The wind always seems to blow out here, rustling the trees just enough so you hear their leaves flapping. The tall prairie grasses give you an idea of what Illinois must have looked like to the Indians.

A black caterpillar nearly gets crushed as a group of kids, oblivious to it, rush by. They're more interested in the chipmunk that has scurried across the path.

Dring has posted warnings along the way: "Please do not molest or disturb wildlife." He snickers at it. "It always gets their attention," he says.

The Forest Preserve District is funded from a variety of Cook County tax sources. Its 1989 budget is just over $89 million. It receives about a penny on the dollar from property taxes. Dring says he isn't sure what his exact budget is and a call to the district headquarters isn't helpful. The nature center is one of four in the Chicago area, operated with a total budget of $1.7 million, most of which goes for salaries. (The nature center employs seven people, both full- and part-timers, in addition to Dring.)

"I tell them what I want and they give me what they think I need, and it's never the same," says Dring. "I might ask for a sander and some sandpaper. I'll get the sander, but no sandpaper. Or I get a hammer but no nails. They never say here's $25,000 to work with this year."

Down by Long John Slough, No Fishing signs are posted. We stop to toss corn to the ducks, but there aren't any in sight. Instead, enormous gold and brown carp literally jump out of the water to feed on the grain.

"I have to decide what to do about these fish," Dring says. There used to be thousands of ducks in the slough, but Dring let the fish take over. They did a good job of eating the bread and junk food visitors tossed into the water, and they kept the water stirred up so weeds wouldn't grow. "The problem is, the ducks won't come back if these fish are here.

"This is a typical dilemma for me," he explains. "People like the fish, but they want to see the cute ducks. So I guess I'll have to wipe out the carp and goldfish, and bring the ducks back."

Dring is typically practical. "You can never make all the people happy," he says. "I do what I think is best for the animals and habitat."

The nature trails (and parking lot) at the nature center are open 8 AM to 4:30 PM daily through February (hours are longer in the spring). The Little Red School House is open 9 to 4 daily except for Fridays, and will be closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Admission is free and more information is available at 708-839-6897.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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