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John Kirk’s Legacy

Dr. John J. Kirk passed away peacefully on the morning of September 2nd, 2017. On the evening of September 7th, Jerry Schierloh, Assistant Director of NJSOC under Dr. Kirk, gave a special tribute. The transcript follows.

Gathering of Friends and Family
Goble Funeral Home
Sparta, New Jersey
September 7, 2017

JOHN KIRK’S LEGACY

I’d like to preface my comments this evening with a few introductory questions, and a request for a show of hands as a response to each question:

  • How many of you had some association with John Kirk in his role as Environmental Educator or Director of the School between 1963 and 2001?
  • How many of you accompanied school groups to the School of Conservation during John Kirk’s directorship or participated in Environmental Education training workshops at SOC?
  • How many of you were either Environmental Fellows or Interns at SOC, or took graduate courses under the tutelage of John Kirk and his staff?
  • And last, but certainly not least, how many of you were a camper and/or counselor in John Kirk’s premier summer camping program, Camp Wapalanne?

I could keep going with this list of questions for some time, but let me just say that it a genuine privilege for me to speak not only TO, but in behalf OF, those who are gathered here this evening – as well as those who aren’t – who experienced and benefitted from some aspect or realm of the legendary life and career of John J. Kirk.

As a 32-year member of the staff of the New Jersey School of Conservation – during much of Dr. John Kirk’s 38-year tenure – I am challenged to define the incredible Legacy of this Man!  I will make a feeble attempt to do so very briefly by focusing on just three wordsPROGRAMS, PASSION, and PLACE.

PROGRAMS

John Kirk initiated, oversaw, and carried out a remarkable array of PROGRAMS at the School of Conservation over the years…PROGRAMS that served over a quarter-million New Jersey students and teachers from throughout the State of New Jersey…PROGRAMS that featured interdisciplinary training workshops, where hands-on methodologies made the environment come alive to the trainees…PROGRAMS that created Environmental Education academic opportunities for countless undergraduate and graduate students in the form of SOC resident Fellowships and Internships…PROGRAMS that attracted the active participation of environmental educators, experts, and dignitaries from literally all parts of the country and the world…PROGRAMS that solicited and earned the political support of the New Jersey State Legislature to such an extent that in 1981, through Senate Bill 1601, the New Jersey School of Conservation was established ‘in perpetuity.’

John Kirk further sought to wield the influence of the School and his reputation internationally by assuming significant leadership roles in such PROGRAMS as the United Nations Environmental Programme, the Interfaith Partnership for the Environment, and the prestigious North American Committee of the Belgrade Charter, which sought to introduce Environmental Education into scores of countries throughout the world!

Fortunately, through nearly ten years of interviewing and meticulous historical research, staff member, Annette Sambolin, documented much of John Kirk’s PROGRAM legacy through the magnificent volume titled “Fifty Years of Educational Services to Nature and Society.”

PASSION

This brings us to my second word, PASSION.  There’s probably no one gathered here this evening who would not agree that John Kirk approached every venture that he was ever a part of with great PASSION.  That PASSION was manifested in many ways, but in the long run, it always resulted in something significant being produced, or the talents of those who respected him and worked with him being invoked.  A brief story from one of his staff members during the School’s 50th anniversary year in 1999 reveals her undeniable sense of this PASSION.

The story begins:

“I was helping to set up for the Women’s Fly Fishing Weekend Workshop.  Dr. Kirk asked me to pick up his clipboard from his office.  As I carried it back to Kittatinny Hall, I looked at the board.  It was worn at the edges and chipped on one edge.  Its finish was the oil of 36 years of natural finger grease.  The back of the board was covered with stickers from environmental organizations who have concern for the Earth and are doing something about it.

“On the front, under a scratched, dull-finished, metal clip were notes to be shared at the Friday night ‘Welcome’ portion of the workshop.  Below the notes, affixed to the legal-sized clipboard was one solitary sticker that read:  I CAN SAVE THE EARTH.”

This staff member concluded:  “Dr. Kirk has been striving to save the Earth for some time now.  Since his initial introduction into the realm of the Stokes Forest, School of Conservation Legend, he has fought to sustain its existence through what many have perceived as a one-man ‘crusade!’”

PASSION.  That word and the career-long personage of John J. Kirk seemed to be synonymous!

PLACE

My final word:  PLACE.

John Kirk had a career-long ‘love-affair’ with the PLACE called the New Jersey School of Conservation.  He lived it   . . he breathed it . . . he drew inspiration from it by just being in its presence.  You could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice whenever he addressed a group of new arrivals at a training workshop or School Anniversary celebration.  It was most clearly evident in the pageantry of a Camp Wapalanne closing campfire.  And whenever John Kirk had a captivated audience during one of his travel lectures, he would always speak of the School ‘back home’ with an aura of reverence and respect.

Perhaps most significantly, this passion of his for the School was contagious, and was adopted by many of us who lived and worked in his presence.  Though the person, the spouse, the father, the father-figure, the administrator, the educator, the negotiator, the mentor, the colleague, and the visionary persona of John Kirk has passed on, his Career Legacy lives on in the Spirit and Soul of the New Jersey School of Conservation.

Who among those gathered here this evening has not experienced pangs of yearning and nostalgia for attempting to reclaim our association with the Magical PLACE called SOC, where the very foundations of some of our most cherished and revered convictions and ideologies were conceived, practiced, and experienced?

Two years ago, at a ‘Friends of NJSOC Retreat’ where John Kirk was an invited guest, I shared a verse that spoke of the Legacy of PLACE that he helped inspire as a 38-year Director of the School.  For the benefit of those gathered here this evening who lived out a portion of their lives at the School of Conservation, and who have internalized this sense of PLACE, allow me, if you will, to conclude my message with this verse:

Though Tides of Time
recede in silence from this Hallowed Place,
We still see mirror’d in each remembered face
reflections of a Dream that, for a fleeting breath of time
embraced us, captive in a gloried trance
of Life Sublime.

The intervening years
have washed some mem’ries clean—
the here and now are not what once they seemed.
And yet, at times, some whispered song or sound
or waft of something in the air
will draw us back to what was
then and there.

What is there
in the aura of a Special Place
that weaves a binding thread, a vague connecting trace
of mem’ry that seems timeless in its spell? . . .
We only know that here, amid the spirit of this Place,
which time and circumstance can ne’er erase,
is where our ‘Legacy of Life’ will
fondly and forever dwell.

Beyond John Kirk’s PROGRAMS and his PASSION, it is perhaps this timeless Spirit of PLACE that he so ardently captivated and passed on that will prevail as his Life Legacy.

May he rest in peace knowing that he left us a VERY SPECIAL PLACE where his PROGRAMS, his PASSION, and his PERSONA will long be remembered, recalled, and revered!

Jerry Schierloh
NJSOC Staff Member
1967-1999