Chesterton Tribune

Helen E. Dancey Meadow envisioned as haven for birds

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Helen Dancey remembered: The Porter County Park Foundation is planting a native prairie meadow at Sunset Hill Farm County Park that will be named after the late ornithologist and foundation member Helen Dancey, who died in July of 2002. The meadow signage was unveiled as tribute to Dancey Saturday. Shown here (left to right) are Bill Dancey, holding a portrait of his mother; Foundation President Tim Cole; and Damien Gabis, holding the meadow signs.                (Tribune photo by Vicki Urbanik)

 

By VICKI URBANIK

Helen Dancey would be pleased.

Before her death in last July of last year, Dancey began working on a native prairie meadow at Sunset Hill Farm County Park “for wildlife and birds,” as she wrote at the time. Once completed, the prairie will cover about 10 acres on the northeast corner of Sunset Hill in the area of the old oak that can be seen from U.S. 6.

The habitat will be mainly native grasses, such as big blue stem grass and switch grass, which will provide a better cover than wildflowers for birds.

“That’s what she would have appreciated the most,” said Porter County Parks Foundation member Damien Gabis, who is now overseeing the prairie project.

Signage naming the prairie the “Helen E. Dancey Meadow” was unveiled at the park foundation’s annual meeting Saturday at Sunset Hill, where Dancey, an ornithologist, former Chesterton resident and foundation member, was fondly remembered.

Foundation Board President Tim Cole said it’s rare to meet someone of Dancey’s caliber and renown. It’s even rarer for that person to be as down to earth as she was. Cole described Dancey as a first-class birder, a “wonderful, wonderful person,” and an ageless inspiration to all who knew her.

“When I first met Helen, I think my first question was: ‘You’re how old? You go where alone? You’ve seen how many birds?’” Cole said.

The answers: Dancey celebrated her 90th birthday in April of last year, and her age stunned many people who thought her much younger. She went birding all over the world, from all of Africa to the outbacks of Australia. It’s believed that she visited all but a few countries.

She was once asked why she wanted to go on one seemingly unsavory trip. “Because I’ve never been there before,” she responded.

As for birds, her bird book has more than 3,500 entries.

Dancey was born in Amherstberg, Canada in 1912. (The date was April 22, which, appropriately enough, would later be designated as Earth Day.) Her passion for birds came at a very young age. Cole said Dancey told him once that she got started in birding by asking for a pair of binoculars for her 10th birthday. Though another relative protested that birding wasn’t a suitable avocation for girls -- the year by then was 1922 -- Dancey’s parents got her the binoculars anyway. With her bird book in hand, Dancey went out on her first expedition and tripped and skinned her knee.

She was hardly deterred, as she continued birding her whole life. “She was still going strong before her untimely death,” Cole said, emphasizing that her death was indeed untimely given Dancey’s apparently good health and strong spirit.

She maintained and collected meticulous birding data. Cole said Dancey once told him that she needed a book about the birds of the U.S.S.R., and Cole helped her find one. Gabis, the developer of the Taltree Arboretum, said Dancey graciously left her birding library to Taltree, filling up one full wall of bird books, all of which are very well used.

Dancey, a retired biology teacher and author of bird surveys, graduated from the University of Michigan Biological Station, and it was at this university that she met her husband, the late Dr. Robert Dancey. She was also a graduate of Northwestern University and of Southern Illinois University, where she obtained special education degrees. She served on the board of Opportunity Enterprises, the park foundation and the Vale of Paradise Garden Club. She was also an oil painter.

Dancey put her passion for birds into action at Sunset Hill Farm. She once clashed with the former county park superintendent over plans to mow a grassy field, which she argued would destroy vital nesting habitat. She conducted extensive bird surveys at Sunset Hill, and she was fiercely protective of the gardens as well.

“She was out here every chance she got, rain or shine,” said her son, Bill, who came to the foundation meeting from his home in Columbus, Ohio. Sunset Hill was a mission for his mother, he said.

Her friend, Karen Marshall, said Dancey took her friends birding many, many times. “Helen walked us to death,” she said.

Once, when she went birding with Dancey at Wolf Lake in Hammond, they encountered other birders, including one man from England. Dancey, as it turned out, knew them all.

At her 90th birthday party at a Valparaiso restaurant, Marshall said Dancey was sharing her stories as usual at the table -- stories that several other people sitting nearby overheard and found so fascinating that they pulled up and joined in to listen.

Cole said that Dancey’s death is a great loss to those who knew her but “a great reward of heaven.”

“I’m sure she’s somewhere counting birds,” he said.

 

Posted 6/10/2003