Sherwood Friends celebrate opening of Nature Center
By Rita Papazian
The Friends of Sherwood Island opened the doors to the new Nature Center at the East Beach of Connecticut's first state park this past weekend, culminating the five years of planning and fund-raising into a successful public/private partnership between the state and the Friends organization.
Designed by local architect Peter Wormser, the Nature Center is set high on the land between the salt marsh and Long Island Sound on one of the highest points on Sherwood Island State Park, Westport. The building seems to beckon visitors to its front porch to venture through its doors into the interior reminiscent of "a one-room schoolhouse." For the spacious open interior creates easy access to the exhibits, displays, touch tanks and diorama as visitors meander.
The open interior space is accommodating for groups to congregate for presentations, group activities, lectures and programs.
The vistas from three directions -- north, south and west -- are breathtaking and any painters' and photographers' delight who may attempt to capture the "Andrew Wyatt" scene.
"It's an absolutely stunning location," said Louis Pietig, a member of the Friends group instrumental in the Nature Center becoming a reality.
First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, who toured the Nature Center with Weston's top official, Woody Bliss, said of the facility, "It's great. It's fantastic. It's so appropriately placed and so needed. It never would have happened if it weren't a dream in someone's mind."
While it's not exactly sure whose idea it was to build the facility, there is no doubt that it was needed when the former Nature Center building at the state park became so dilapidated that the Westport Fire Department ultimately used it for training for putting out fires.
That action set the Friends ablaze with enthusiasm that ignited in a great deal of action following Pat Coplen's efforts in securing a $50,000 grant from the General Electric Foundation. That led to a grant of $15,000 from Paul Newman's Newman's Own. In total, the approximately $400,000 project was funded equally by the state and the Friends' fund raising.
The opening exhibits and displays in the Nature Center include a brief history of Sherwood Island State Park, as well as a look at oystering, lobstering and animals of the surrounding habitats.
This summer, the Nature Center will be staffed by naturalist Alan Berman, a 2001 graduate of Greens Farms Academy, who recently graduated from Prescott College in Arizona, where he majored in marine studies and art. He was instrumental in planning and constructing the diorama depicting the inter-tidal zones. Berman painted a mural to complement the diorama showing the natural habitat of plants and animals.
Berman said interns from Staples High School will supplement the staffing. The Nature Center will be open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Park Supervisor Jim Beschle, who has been a Department of Environmental Protection employee for the past 30 years, assumed duties at Sherwood Island State Park in January. He said, "I can't thank the Friends enough for their efforts."
Commenting upon the upcoming season, Beschle said he was ready for the season to officially open this Memorial Day weekend with a staff of 13 lifeguards sharing duties from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. The park employs four full-time maintenance staffers and approximately an additional 55 seasonal employees.
"I think we'll be okay. We'll do well," Beschle said.
The Nature Center opened Saturday following the Friends' annual meeting, at which Winnie Balboni, who founded the organization 12 years ago, presented a "True Friends of Sherwood Island" award to Hope and Alvin Hageman, who serve as co-president and treasurer, respectively, for the volunteer organization. In presenting the award, Balboni said, the Nature Center was "an example of what can happen when people really care and you two guys really care."
Balboni said, "If it hadn't been for Hope's enthusiasm, I would have given up a long time ago. She added that "two critters" at the Nature Center would be named in honor of the couple.
According to the Friends of Sherwood Island Web site, the new Nature Center's location will provide nature and beach walkers, birders and shell hunters a destination site as well as a permanent place to pick up park maps, birding guides, trail markers and tree guides, and other program information.
During its annual meeting, the Friends elected officers for its upcoming year. They are as follows: Sheila O'Neill, president; Hope Hageman and Liz-Ann Koos, co-vice-presidents; Lois Anton, secretary; Al Hageman, treasurer; Marilyn Bakker, Web master; Louis Pietig and Fred Frillici, Ways and Means; Liz Milwe, Donald Snook, Tina Green, Marge Dunham and Becky Ruthven, program; and Winnie Balboni, Hec Anton, Allen Raymond and Jim Hood, at-large.