A lifetime of nurturing nature for Homewood man
BY GINGER BRASHINGER Correspondent April 24, 2013 3:30PM
Robert Ahlf is pictured at the Izaak Walton Preserve in Homewood Thursday, April 4, 2013. He is retiring after 35 years as the president. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 26, 2013 6:02AM
Robert “Bob” Ahlf has given a lifetime of volunteer work to his community.
The 71-year-old Homewood man served as president of the Homewood Izaak Walton Preserve for 39 years, a labor of love that began because he was in the right place at the right time.
A walk through the preserve in 1972, shortly after Ahlf moved to Homewood, resulted in his meeting Les Warning, Homewood’s public works director at the time.
“I like to dig in the dirt and chop wood and build things,” Ahlf said.
But because he was renting a room in a home on 183rd Street — the perfect location for him to catch the train to Chicago, where he worked as a railway civil engineer for the Illinois Central Railroad — Ahlf said he wasn’t able to pursue his interests.
A bachelor with time on his hands, Ahlf decided to explore his new hometown instead.
“I started walking around Homewood and I followed the railroad tracks out to the preserve,” Ahlf said.
He stopped to help Warning and some other men “frantically” working at a spillway, trying to contain the dam waters but losing the battle.
Ahlf pitched in and didn’t think any more about it, he said, until Warning called him a few days later to ask Ahlf to take over maintenance of the lakes and fish stock of the preserve, at 1100 Ridge Road.
Ahlf said he had no particular skills for the position but thought that Warning was “pleased because I stopped to help.
“In other words,” he said, “I was a warm body.”
Ahlf turned out to be much more than that.
During his unexpected tenure, he has overseen the preserve’s growth from just over 26 acres to 193 acres of woods, wetlands, lakes and trails, enjoyed by thousands of people each year.
Ahlf credits Homewood visionaries — and fate — with the success of the little preserve he “sort of took pity on” in 1972.
Mel Hoekstra, a Homewood businessman and village trustee, was instrumental in “moving things forward” because of his belief in the preserve, Ahlf said.
He calls current Mayor Richard Hofeld “a wonderful backer of the preserve,” and his predecessor, John Doody, “farsighted ... always thinking in the long term.”
Nevertheless, Ahlf said it “took years” to build the preserve, which relies on members’ contributions and volunteers and is self-supporting.
“Probably” the first success for the preserve, he said, was adding a 30-foot strip of land on the north side of the original lake abutting the Washington Race Track property.
At that time, the race track’s chain-link fence was “right dead up to the (lake) waters,” making it impossible to walk entirely around the lake, Ahlf said.
He said preserve members “pleaded” for more land to add a buffer zone between the preserve and the race track and, later, planned subdivisions, but nothing came of their efforts.
But there was no giving up.
“We just kept plodding along. Anytime we could nibble away at the boundary or work out any kind of a deal to get some land added, we did,” Ahlf said.
Every little bit helped.
A one-acre donation of land by a Homewood resident gave the preserve “access on the west,” and a token payment to the Illinois Central Railroad for a 25-foot wide, quarter-mile strip on either side of the track resulted in what is now a 100-foot strip of land, an integral part of the chain of trails in the preserve, he said.
Although the bits and pieces of land added up, what really “shifted the whole dynamics,” Ahlf said, was when the race track burned down in 1977.
“We did not have anything to do with that, believe me,” Ahlf said, chuckling.
When subsequent housing developments on the land did not flourish in a 1980s real estate downturn, disappointment for some resulted in progress for the preserve, Ahlf said. Any discussion of residential development ended.
“It was the best blessing we could ever have,” he said.
In another twist of fate where “circumstances just fell into our laps,” Ahlf said, the preserve gained lakes and trails when a planned village development at Prairie Lakes had to be scrapped because of a newly passed Cook County stormwater ordinance. The additions eventually brought the preserve to its current size.
Ahlf takes no credit for his own consistent advocacy for the preserve’s growth and development.
“When I think of all the historical events and the obstacles to our expansion and how they have folded back out of our way, I have no explanation,” Ahlf said. “It’s a wonderful thing.”
His plans are to enjoy the preserve as a member and encourage others to become members. He said he is sure that new president Dirk French will “handle it beautifully.”
Ahlf said he has no regrets about spending a lifetime nurturing the preserve.
“I love it. It’s a very easy thing to get attached to if you like the outdoors, if you like people, and if you like optimizing things — to make the whole better than the sum of its parts,” Ahlf said. “That has been a delight to me to be here at a time when I could assist with that.”