RURAL PENFIELD – For those who worked closely with Don Humphrey at the Middle Fork Forest Preserve, they always knew when the first morel mushroom popped out of the ground.
"When it was morel time, that's when Don would shave his beard off," said Kim Cambron of rural Rankin. "We all knew that he'd seen the first morel of the year."
Humphrey, the longtime site superintendent at the Champaign County Forest Preserve park, died Friday morning of lung cancer. He was 57 years old.
Cambron worked for 15 years with Humphrey and said he will be sorely missed – not only by his co-workers and the forest preserve staff, but by the plants and animals he shepherded at Middle Fork.
"He will be greatly missed on a lot of different levels; not only will us 'two-leggeds' miss him, but the land will miss him, too. I know that sounds funny, but it's true," she added.
Middle Fork is the largest forest preserve in Champaign County at approximately 1,600 acres. It is the wildest and least developed of the county's parks, although it has the only public campground in Champaign County. Humphrey was appointed site superintendent in 1985, and while he spent 21 years at Middle Fork, he worked a total of 33 years for the forest preserve.
"We're all down. It's been a tough day," said Andee Chestnut, the public information director at the forest preserve.
"Don was the nicest guy in the whole world. One of my memories of him was telling one of the younger guys, who had been frustrated by a difficult visitor, 'You have to educate people about what we do. You can't just get frustrated with an individual.' That was Don through and through. He was always about teaching people."
As a reporter for The News-Gazette, I came aboard the newspaper the same time that Don became site superintendent at Middle Fork. While I interviewed him several times over the years for stories I was working on, there was another connection: my wife and I would often run into him when we went hiking at Middle Fork.
Usually when we saw Don, it would be just after a long walk. I would excitedly tell him that we'd just seen several turkeys in a tree (this was long before they started roaming the streets of Urbana) or a group of river otters frolicking about in the south wetlands. Of course, none of this was news to him – not only did he oversee Middle Fork, but he raised his family there as well, and so he was intimately familiar with every square inch of the park.
"Middle Fork was his life," Chestnut said. "He was especially passionate about the wetlands."
And he enjoyed the large reconstructed prairie at the site, too, according to Cambron. Because Middle Fork is in an isolated, and relatively pristine, part of Champaign County, it has been a big draw for wildlife, from the turkeys and river otters to the occasional sandhill crane and bald eagle. Humphrey was proud that Middle Fork could give visitors a taste of what Illinois was like before the settlers arrived.
Many people became acquainted with Humphrey through the popular campground.
"We enjoy the park and the campground tremendously. It's a nice, peaceful place to unwind," said Walt Cler of Penfield in a News-Gazette story from 1995. "They maintain a nice park and they keep the trouble out. I'd like to put a plug in for Don Humphrey. He's just a big, friendly guy. He has the welfare of the campers in mind."
Kirby Pringle is a News-Gazette staff writer.