by Alan Anderson, CAS Board Member
The Chicago Audubon Society lost a friend, a warm and helpful person, an educator and an excellent birder during a tragic accident while swimming in the ocean in Costa Rica with his family on Christmas Day. But when Craig Stettner unexpectedly passed away that day, so many more were affected: • Students at Harper College, where Craig taught Environmental Science and Biology since 1994 • The Forest Preserves of Cook County, where he spent many hours working to clear invasive species and to restore habitat at Spring Creek Forest Preserve • Citizens for Conservation • Friends of Busse Woods, where he was a board member • The Dragonfly Monitoring Network, which he coordinated from 2005-2011 And, of course, especially his family. Craig really loved his family, frequently making the trip to the Madison, Wisconsin area to spend time with his niece and nephews there. He spent many hours caring for his father who suffered from dementia. After his father passed, Craig visited his elderly mother every evening, to ensure she was well cared for, according to his brother David. One thing is certain. Craig loved birds. David says, “Craig had handwritten bird lists just about everywhere, his car, mom’s house, his house, his attic, I keep finding them. I think we are all amazed he was not in more accidents. His eyes were in the skies more than the roads when he was driving.” Craig began his involvement with Chicago Audubon Society in 2008 on the Illinois Spring Bird Count, when he helped cover a number of forest preserves along the Des Plaines River, as well as a few areas near Harper College. He faithfully helped with the Spring Bird Count every year thereafter, and, because he was an excellent birder with keen eyesight and a ‘great birding ear’, he almost always found some uncommon species on those days. He even found a Sora in his mother’s yard that first year! Craig participated in Christmas Bird Counts and surveyed a number of Northwest Cook areas for nesting birds. Craig joined the Chicago Audubon board in 2012 and actively served on the board until the present. He gave several programs for CAS, including one on dragonfly identification (one of his other specialties) and one on Costa Rica. He led many bird walks, including CAS Birdathon fundraisers. Craig was known for helping ‘wherever needed’ at all our Birding America Symposia (even standing outside to direct participants to the lunch hall — a very important little detail!). He was a regular volunteer at CAS birdseed pickup days helping many folks get their seed bags to their cars. Julie Sacco, former CAS board member and Naturalist at North Park Village Nature Center, said “I always had a great time working with Craig at the CAS birdseed sale because he always smiled, he was always there to sling 40- pound bags and he always checked on fellow volunteers to see if anyone needed anything, from a hot coffee to a pair of gloves.” Another CAS board member said of Craig, “He seemed to have a knack for lending support to others, no matter the relationship or situation. Clearly, he had a humanitarian gift.” Always humble, always helping, always volunteering, always trying to make others happy. The large church where his Memorial Celebration was held was packed with people whose lives Craig had touched. The most striking theme was how much Craig cared about people – really cared. He had so much love. Craig was a great example of just how much influence a good teacher can have in his community and world. He was not just ‘a teacher’ at Harper College. Former student Jennifer Chung said, “He cared about his students. He wasn’t just a professor — he was also a mentor.” He often brought his students into the natural world with excursions outside the classroom. He regularly led trips to Costa Rica to introduce students to the rich flora and fauna of the rainforest. Here are some of the words that Harper students used to describe Craig: Humble, patient, kind, caretaker, educator, altruistic, friend, saint, contagious, brilliant, loyal, dedicated, brave, philanthropist, encourager, optimistic, empathetic, compassionate, funny, quirky, gentle, inspirational, unforgettable, a mentor, friend, selfless, Godly, loving unconditionally, eco-warrior. Many students have said that Craig influenced their choice of profession. Bill Waltrich said he “was the reason I pursued a career in natural resources.” The Chicago Audubon Society plans to honor and remember Craig’s contributions in a number of ways. The CAS Board has renamed our Education Award “The Craig Stettner Award for Environmental Education.” We will have a field trip in his honor in April at Penny Road Pond and adjacent Spring Creek Forest Preserve, where he did so much ecological restoration. Donations to CAS in memory of Craig will be divided between a bench or plaque in the Spring Creek Forest Preserve remembering Craig’s restoration work there and a continuing scholarship in his name in environmental education at Harper College.
Craig received the William H. Miller Conservation Award from the Barrington-based Citizen’s for Conservation in 2013. In response Craig stated, “I’m honored to be the recipient of an award that’s linked directly to conservation. My goal every year is to expose my Harper students to real ecological work in the hope that it inspires them to learn even more about biology, the environment and ecology, and our role in all of it. They’re able to help a good cause, while learning, and that to me is the real reward.” Mission accomplished, Craig, but we will all definitely miss you!