Alton resident Brent Schindewolf has spent his adult life helping future generations understand the potential they have to make the world a better place. His passion for nature and the environment, along with his enthusiasm for working with young people, have resulted in a lifetime of mentorship for others.
That mentorship continues today. Schindewolf, 75, was born in the Milton area of Alton during the last days of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, just before the end of World War II. “That was before the Milton area was part of the city of Alton,” he says. After graduating from Alton High School in 1963, he attended Southern Illinois University, completing a bachelor’s degree in psychology. At that time, the SIU campus was still in Upper Alton. He worked for SIU at the same time he was going to school, earning 90 cents an hour working at the new campus location being built in Edwardsville. Schindewolf now lives in Alton with his wife of 52 years, Dee. They have two children, three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Following his graduation from SIU, he enrolled in graduate school but was drafted into the Army a week later in 1968. During his deployment, he was stationed in Korea as a senior special weapons specialist on a classified nuclear support team. He achieved the rank of specialist five before his discharge in 1969. Returning home, Schindewolf was hired by the Alton School District and completed his master’s degree in education while working. During his 34 years with the district, he spent 30 of them as a principal over elementary schools, retiring in 2001. “I loved it,” he says of his career in education. He says working with elementary students was particularly satisfying because of the influence you can have on children at that age.
Always interested in nature, Schindewolf credits Alton resident and nationally known bird and nature expert Gene Sands with truly igniting a passion in him for birding and the environment. Schindewolf has written a book about his birding activities with Sands. Schindewolf and other Sierra Club members were instrumental in the creation of The Nature Institute in the early 1980s. The organization took steps to acquire the John M. Olin property in Godfrey from SIUE and designate it as the John Olin Nature Preserve. He was a member of its original board of directors. The 300-acre area on the bluffs above the Mississippi River is a dedicated Illinois nature preserve. The organization’s goals are restoration, preservation and education. Schindewolf conducts field trips at The Nature Institute for area students, educating them about the importance of the environment and their responsibility for taking care of the world. He also participates in summer camps for students.
“I love working with the kids,” he says. “It gives me a chance to recharge my batteries.” He tries to set the stage so they can have lives of enjoying nature. He points out it’s important to teach children not just to preserve what we have, but also to respect the way things should be. “Everything from not littering to not dragging weed seeds into nature areas on their shoes,” he points out. Books were major influences on his interest in the environment. “The one that is most important to me is the Bible,” he says. He says appreciating Creation is the main inspiration for his activities.
Other influential texts include “A Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold. “It kind of started the environmental movement in 1949,” he says. Another book influencing him was the biography of John Adams by David McCullough. “His wife, Abigail, was the light of his life and worked side by side with him,” Schindewolf says. He says he feels the same way about the partnership he has with his wife. In addition to being an accomplished quilter, Dee is also an avid birder and they have traveled extensively together to birding “hot spots” around the country. Their home and property is a national certified wildlife habitat.
After retiring, Schindewolf became certified as a master gardener and a master naturalist through the University of Illinois extension program. The certifications required completion of an extensive curriculum as well as 30 hours of community service. Schindewolf explains they dovetail well with his activities with youngsters at The Nature Institute. When asked by U of I at the time if he had any special talents warranting his admission to the already full program, he told them, “I speak kindergarten.”
In his spare time, Schindewolf sells and collects Buck knives. He and his wife travel around the country displaying their collection. “I’m my own best customer,” he smiles. He is also active with the Fosterburg Baptist Church, and emphasizes the role of faith in his interest in nature. “My appreciation for the environment is directly tied to my appreciation for God’s creation,” he says. Schindewolf says people can foster wildlife habitation in any environment, from putting a feeder up outside an apartment in town to creating an entire habitat in more rural areas. “It’s important to take the initiative to influence others to do what they can with what they have,” he says.