Tracey Koenig’s 25-year career at Heckrodt Wetland Reserve started largely because the Menasha nature center was close by. That was a happy bit of serendipity for the visitors, staff and wildlife at the 91-acre nature center in Menasha.
Tracey and her husband moved from Texas to a house near Heckrodt early in 1998. She had been an environmental specialist at a Houston firm. She decided to check out the wetland reserve down the street.
“I stuck my head in the door and said, ‘Hey, what do you do here?’” she recalled. That curiosity got her signed on as a volunteer educator in April 1998. Three months later, she was named habitat manager, Heckrodt’s first paid employee. Within a year, she was Heckrodt’s executive director. Her last day is April 30.
“It’s been fun. It’s a fun job,” she said.
During her tenure, Heckrodt received 233 grants for a total of $5.1 million from funds at the Community Foundation. About $4.9 million of that has come from two “agency funds,” permanent endowments with the Community Foundation established to provide long-term financial stability for the nature center, which receives no ongoing taxpayer support.
Tracey’s budget approach is simple. “We don’t spend money we don’t have.”
Tracey is known for mentoring those who have come to run other area nature centers. Randy Tuma worked at Heckrodt before moving to Gordon Bubolz Nature Preserve in Grand Chute, where he is now executive director. Tracey remembered him as “an outstanding educator.”
“Tracey offered encouragement, patience, advice and a shared passion for environmental education,” Randy said. “Her dedication as a leader and positive demeanor created a welcoming learning environment for staff and visitors alike.”
Deb Nowak, naturalist and executive director at 1,000 Islands Nature Center in Kaukauna, said Tracey taught her the value of collaborating with fellow nonprofits.
“She has been one of my best mentors and friends through the years,” she said.
For all of Tracey’s dedication, nature dealt her a cruel blow. A tick bite left her with Lyme’s disease. It took several years of treatment to get it under control. She won’t abide that as an excuse for anyone to avoid the outdoors.
“(Getting out in nature) is important to me,” Tracey said. She encouraged people to be responsible in the outdoors, dressing properly and using tick repellants.
Luke Schiller has worked under Tracey for the past 15 years as director of education, and is now stepping in to Tracey’s executive director shoes. He listed two valuable lessons that will stay with him. One is the power of collaboration; the other is reminding staff to keep family time as a high priority.
Working at a nature center is a labor of love, Luke said, with lots of evening and weekend hours. Tracey regularly reminds her staff of the importance of taking some of that time back for family.
Luke also credited Tracey for her vision for proper habitat management. The wide diversity of wildlife that lives at Heckrodt, Tracey said, “tells me that we’ve done a good job.”
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