Retiring forest preserve chief did so much, 'seems he was here a lot longer'

MAHOMET — After 6 1/2 years as executive director of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, Jerry Pagac retired earlier this month. But he has no plans to leave Champaign County or to stop spending time outdoors.

"I'm staying here for now, just kind of waiting to see what might happen," he said last week. "I don't have any plans to go anywhere else."'

He's not looking for another job.

"I was very happy with what I was doing here, so I would have stayed if I had wanted to keep working," he said.

Pagac accomplished a lot during his tenure, said forest preserve board member Ruth Wene of Urbana.

"He's done so much that it seems like he was here a lot longer than he was," Wene said.

"Jerry was a very good team builder. He empowered employees to do what they could for the district and for themselves professionally," she said. "And it seemed like he always had a new project coming up, even as people would say, 'Hey, we just finished with that other project.' But he really helped us see some of our facilities with new eyes. He really helped us improve things at the campground up at the Middlefork preserve (near Penfield), for example."

Pagac said he's proud of several projects he and his staff were able to complete during his tenure, including two major land acquisitions and the construction of a Playscape area at Homer Lake, but disappointed that he won't be around for the acquisition and development of a rail trail project between Urbana and Kickapoo State Park along U.S. 150.

"I wanted to get that acquisition done before I retired, but I think it's really, really close," he said. "It's been a real team effort with so many people pitching in."

But the forest preserve district has been "remarkably successful," he said, in obtaining and finding matching grants for land acquisition and other projects, almost entirely without any local tax money.

"It's been a challenge, but it makes you become more creative and you seek out every opportunity you get," Pagac said. "We've been remarkably successful with grants. We've got a person on staff, Mary Ellen Wuellner, who is our grants coordinator and has done a terrific job.

"Probably the foremost would be the land we were able to get that we ended up calling the Sangamon River Forest Preserve (south of Fisher). That was 160 acres. The neat thing about that was that the district doesn't have any money for land acquisition per se, so that the only way we could make it work is if we are successful in getting grants. Normally you can get a grant for half the amount. So we got half through a grant from the (state Department of Natural Resources) and the other half through the Clean Energy Foundation."

The forest preserve district also got grants and private donations for an 80-acre addition to the Middlefork preserve (now more than 1,702 acres), for a classroom and storage building addition to its Museum of the Grand Prairie at Lake of the Woods park and for the Homer Lake natural playscape. The latter project, in the last stages of construction, is a natural playground for children and adults. It has natural play materials including large logs, rocks, a streambed, a small beach and flowers and plants.

It is to be dedicated at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27. A separate reception will be held in Pagac's honor.

In retirement, Pagac said, he'll have more time to work on his home near Mahomet and to play golf, fish and garden. And he'll be able to work on restoring and remodeling an 1870s-era Methodist church, south of Bloomington, Ind., that he recently purchased with his daughter.

"We're going to be fixing it up so that she can use it as a photo studio," Pagac said. "It's a beautiful little white clapboard church. It's just like the pews and everything are original. Nothing's changed in that building."

The church has two front entry doors and an interior divider that was designed to keep the sexes apart.

"I'll probably be over there a lot, doing some work to fix it up. It has a few structural issues that need some attention, but for the most part it's in terrific shape for a building that is that old."

Natural Resources chief, deputy director to succeed Pagac

Dan Olson is expected to be named the new director of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District when the district's board meets Thursday. He would replace Jerry Pagac.

Olson, 40, has been with the forest preserve district for about 10 years as its director of natural resources. He also was named deputy director earlier this year.

"He has really been so important to us in terms of making natural resources the base of all of our operations," said board member Ruth Wene of Urbana. "He's going to be good for us. He's younger, he comes to us with a different kind of experience. And the staff know him and like him."

Olson is married and lives in Champaign with his wife and two young children.

He is a native of Clinton who graduated with a bachelor's degree in zoology from Eastern Illinois University. Before coming to the forest preserve district, he worked at the University of Illinois' College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences as a visiting research scientist, with a specialty in biological research.

"I was always very impressed with Dan," said Pagac. "I had told the board that if they were interested in hiring from within that he would be an excellent candidate for the job."

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