Today I sat down at the Nature Center and had a delightful interview with Leo Michael Damask III. A dedicated and committed volunteer with a certain cheerfulness that gets to be contagious. I found myself to be drawn in and completely comfortable with the 87-year-old as if we were old friends.
Leo agreed to do an interview and I agreed to post his wonderful poem on my blog. It is about his love and support for this wonderful city, that he says he was, “Lucky to be born in.”
Leo has a deep love for all of God’s animals and plants and takes care of them often. You can find him watering our classroom full of plants or feeding squirrels among the trees. As I listen to his stories and get answers to my questions, I am humbled by the simplicity of this friendly man, who finds such joy in feeding robins and squirrels.
I think we all need a Leo in our lives. Here is my interview:
Me: “If I can first just ask, how long have you been volunteering here?”
Leo: “About fifteen years.”
Me: “Wow. So you started in what year?”
Leo: “Oh God, I don’t remember what year. Let’s just say fifteen years and go back from there, I’m bad at math.”
Me: “What’s your favorite thing about this place? I mean what makes you keep coming back?”
Leo: “Nature. To be in the world of nature and then secondly, it’s like a family of people that like to work in nature like I do. We have the same goals.”
Me: “That’s nice. So is taking care of the plants your job? What other work do you do?”
Leo: “This is what I do, winter or summer or fall or spring. I also sometimes help out there where we might mulch or pull seeds from plants in the fall. But also I have seven or eight places outside of the Nature Center on this property of 150 acres, where I have urns, that the Park District has ignored for years. So I put flowers in them wherever I see empty urns I plant flowers in there. Also, after I’m through here with watering the flowers, I’m going to take some seeds we have and feed the birds. I have bird feeders all around so I’ll feed them when I’m through with my watering. So I have to do that at least once a week.”
Me: “I noticed that you walk everywhere. Do you own a car?”
Leo: “I do not own a car. I have walked everywhere my entire life and if it’s far I take public transportation. I live about eleven or so blocks from here, so I walk here and I walk home because I feed the squirrels in the cemetery on my way home. I like to feed them peanuts and I make sure to leave some by the trees on Pulaski street as well.”
Me: “So what do you think it is about this place that makes people want to come? Whether to volunteer or visit?”
Leo: “Have you ever asked anyone else that question?”
Me: “Yes, I have.”
Leo: “What have they answered?”
Me: “They discuss the people, the nature so close to the city and stuff like that.”
Leo: “Well, the word is, a love for nature. You have to have a love for the world of nature or else you wouldn’t be interested in coming here. That’s it.”
Me: “Do you think there’s anything special about this place that differs from other parks?”
Leo: “No, they’re all dedicated in some way. They all have the same goals.”
Me: “So no one else takes care of the plants here? Just you?”
Leo: “Well, when Drew was the director here that was his job. He loved doing it as much as directing the Nature Center. So when he left the Center, he gave his plant job to me. So I’m happy to have it. I’m just following through on what he did.”
Me: “Is there any job here that you enjoy doing the most?”
Leo: smiles tenderly: “All of it. Anyway, they need me. I’ve even written three or four articles about this place in our old newsletters. There in the archives somewhere and I’ve done so much research for it. I would be happy for you to look them up and use them if you like.”
Me: “Absolutely. Thank you. Now talking in terms of the new technology that is always about, and the great surge of young people becoming more and more attached to it, can you share your thoughts on that? Or maybe tell what should be done?”
Leo: “What you have to do and some people do here, like volunteers and staff especially, is to satisfy their curiosity about nature. Because some of them know very little about it as their growing up. But, we do have many dedicated people here, who stimulate their curiosity about nature. Now when Drew was here. He and I used to sometimes get the kids together by the fireplace and read stories to them. We loved that.
I enjoyed it. I actually had the kids thinking that in one picture there was a waterfall. I touched it and said, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t know it was that wet,” and a little blonde haired boy came over to touch it because he thought it was really wet. So I had him believing!”
Me: “That’s awesome. You mentioned helping to stimulate kid’s minds. Did you have someone like that in your life that helped you get involved?”
Leo: “Yeah. My teachers were wonderful, they really did help me. You know what helped me too? Movies. Movies fascinated me, especially what Walt Disney did. Disney did so many nature films, not just cartoons. I’m very honored that he’s a fellow Chicagoan.”
Me: “Can I ask, why do you love squirrels so much?”
Leo: “Why wouldn’t I? Their beautiful little creatures that need help. In the winter, they can’t feed themselves, so I make sure to leave them peanuts. How could anyone not love squirrels?”
And so forth we went on with this cheerful little talk. Leo told me different stories about times when he saw thousands of crows, robins, and squirrels. He said he knew that God had let him see it because He knew how much Leo cared for them. Leo also proceeded to tell me of the two medals he won in cross country skiing.
I couldn’t help but think of this man as a form of Disney himself. He has enough common sense to tell things like they are and enough cheerfulness to find love in the simplest things.
And for the record, I truly don’t know where the trees, birds, or squirrels would be with dear Leo!
So with that said, here is his poem. Titled, “Majestic Chicago.” Leo told me that it is his hope to give it to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. If you like this poem, please leave a comment. I told Leo that I would share with him the feedback, so please be gracious and comment!
Thanks for reading! God Bless!
Our exciting home- CHICAGO
With the heartbeat of its people.
Ever on the move,
To make it a better city.
A better home,
Then it was yesterday.
Renewing – restoring – rebuilding – revitalizing,
And revolutionizing in many ways,
A city being reborn.
New growth – reaching up and out,
As if in growing pains,
Unending – from long-ago flames.
CHICAGO – like its people, has its faults,
And its shortcomings,
But its endless and enduring strength,
And determined grit,
To survive, and to strive,
Overpowers its weaknesses.
CHICAGO has no backdrop of towering mountains,
But as if to compensate,
Grew one of the world’s tallest buildings,
Stretching up to the clouds.
Since the birth of this magnificent city,
It has grown in all directions,
Stopped only by her sister – the great lake, to the east,
And what a lakefront!
A grand front yard for all to enjoy,
Almost 30 miles of unparalleled shorelines,
That sparkles the eye,
And refreshes the spirit.
CHICAGO – our home,
You’ve come a long way since your birth.
On that wet, waving prairie,
Caressed by the sometimes gentle,
Sometimes screeching winds,
Breathing off that great lake called Michigan.
Even a monumental inferno couldn’t suffocate you,
Survive you have,
And survive you will,
That’s the GO spirit in Chicago!
CHICAGO – host to the world,
Visited by commoners and Kings,
By Presidents and Queens.
And justly so,
With the grandeur of Chicago,
And the vitality of Chicago.
A city of cities,
The crossroads of the world,
It reigns royal and majestic,
Over them all.
That’s CHICAGO – my home.