Summit Metro Parks Celebrates First Naturalist Who Helped Launch Popular Fall Hiking Spree
Getting outdoors has been a regularly prescribed antidote to the spread of the coronavirus. Local parks have been a sanctuary this year. But they were not always so popular.
Many years ago, few people used them. The work of one man helped to change that for Summit Metro Parks, which is why today is known as Bert Szabo Day.
In the small kitchen of his Munroe Falls apartment, Bert Szabo shared an album created by his family in honor of his 100th birthday today. Szabo has four children and so many grandchildren and great-grandkids that when asked how many he has, he said, "18 or more." He pointed to one who first wanted to pursue acting. "She's become a gardener. Isn’t that funny?" he quipped. "It's in the blood."
For Bert, a love of nature and the outdoors began when he was a boy growing up in Lorain. His father worked in a steel mill. He called his mother open-minded. She gave Bert freedom to explore as long as he got home in time.
"While he was working at the steel plant, I would roam all over that part of Lorain and go out in the woods along the Black River," Bert said, "and climb the trees with the squirrels and birds and all that, and she just said, 'Be home when Dad comes home.'"
He described himself as an OK student at St. Mary’s Academy. When he decided to pursue degrees in agriculture and botany at Ohio University, his high school teachers were skeptical. "After I graduated, I came back to the nun, and I said, 'Well, I got my master's degree.' And she didn't believe it," he said with a chuckle.
In his early working years, Bert ran a dairy farm at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson. When the farm closed, a chance encounter with someone connected to the Akron Metropolitan Park District, led him to an opportunity. "I was the ranger at Goodyear Heights Metro Park." He recalled starting the job Aug. 12, 1957. "And I worked for 34 years till Jan. 31, 1991."
Though he’s been retired for 29 years, Szabo’s work with what evolved into the Summit Metro Parks is still enjoyed by thousands in the community each year. It’s something he said that came out of a regular weekly staff meeting where the park district’s then director-secretary, Arthur Wilcox, shared the idea. "I had a dream last night," Szabo recalled Wilcox saying. "How can we get this started? We have to have a hiking spree."
In 1965, the Summit Metro Parks Fall Hiking Spree was born. It has become the largest and longest-running event of its kind in the nation, a treasured annual activity for many local families that grew out of a need.
"We gotta do something about getting people out in the parks because nobody is using the parks," Szabo said. Even he was unfamiliar with them. "I didn't even know they were there. I lived in Hudson five years and never knew there was a Metro park."
Bert had been named the first chief naturalist for the Park District in 1963. His job was to spread the word about this natural resource people weren’t aware of. He had worked with school groups and had written newsletters. It didn’t take long for the idea of the hiking spree to take off. "They advertised it. And I have 60 people come out for a nature walk, and it never stopped," he said. Asked if he was surprised by the success of the fall hiking spree, Szabo said, "Oh, I never thought much about it because it was a job."
A job that kept him busy for three decades. Not only with the hiking spree, but with other projects too: the F.A. Seiberling Nature Realm, exhibits, and the newsletter that has evolved into "Green Islands Magazine." When he started there were six parks. There are now 16. The Metro Parks' Lindsay Smith says that’s why the park system designated today Bert Szabo Day.
"He's the only person who has his own day in Summit Metro Parks," Smith said. "He's had a profound impact on the park district as you can hear from the stories he's told. In its formative years, he was right there with us. And really, if you ask so many of the naturalists and volunteers and people associated with Summit Metro Parks today, they will name Bert as a huge inspiration for them."
For the month of December, Sand Run Parkway is renamed Bert Szabo Parkway, an honor this newly minted centenarian appreciates. "Well, makes me feel pretty good that I was recognized," he said. He also shared some things he learned during his years of service and life. He said you always have to finish what you start. With his job, "I found out being congenial pays off."
When he retired, he became a park district volunteer and went through boxes of history he’d saved from being trashed. He continues to be a resource. "We're doing an archival project with some wonderful, historic images that we are excited to feature next year during our Centennial Anniversary and really some of these things aren't labeled, so Bert is an incredible resource," Smith said.
He may be 100, but he’s not slowing down too much.
"I don’t feel old," he said. "I still drive that car out there."
The fall hiking spree wrapped up Nov. 30. Smith said 11,000 to 12,000 people on average earn rewards each year for completing hikes, but this year that number is expected to be higher. The final count will be done early next year.