Updated: October 9, 2013 7:27PM
“The lack of power to take joy in outdoor nature is as real a misfortune as the lack of power to take joy in books.”
— Theodore Roosevelt
Sandy Basala is the superintendent of Visitor’s Services for Lake County Parks Department. Our interview took place at the check-in station of the Grand Kankakee Marsh Lake County Park — one of 12 Lake County parks she helps oversee.
Basala lives in Crown Point with husband Jim; they have two adult daughters.
Age? It’s part of my job.
“A lady never tells and a gentleman never asks,” she said. “I’m 67, but I look 42. Right?”
Sandy, you took the words right out of my mouth.
“I was born in Gary and went to Lew Wallace High School.”
I’ve interviewed a boat load of Lew Wallace grads the last month or two.
“Hey, that was one of the big high schools. We lived at 33rd and Massachusetts in Glen Park. This was before (Indiana University Northwest) was in Gleason Park. I remember when Gilroy Stadium was built; that’s where they shot off all the fireworks.”
Amazing that a 42-year old can remember Gilroy Stadium being built.
“I grew up in the Gary Park System. We had the playground, the wading pool, the green spaces... . In the summer, the Gary Park System had the craft lady that came around. That’s where I learned to make lanyards, potholders and all those things that I later taught to my grandkids.”
Any other childhood memories of Gary?
“We used to play outside all the time. We weren’t that far from the Little Calumet River. I remember climbing trees and building forts all day long. We had the ideal recreation.
“By today’s standards, my mom and dad would probably be considered terrible parents. We’d leave in the morning and come home at night and they didn’t know where we were. But we were never bored. I had a wonderful childhood growing up in Gary.”
“My undergrad is in sociology from Purdue Calumet in Hammond, my master’s is in psychology at Valparaiso (University) and I earned my Ph.D. in health kinesiology and leisure studies at Purdue in West Lafayette.”
When did you start working for Lake County Parks Department?
“In 1980. I was hired on to do special events. Back then, we only had this park at the Grand Kankakee Marsh, Deep River, and Lemon Lake. Gibson Woods had been acquired, but we didn’t do any additions like the Nature Center until 1984. Oak Ridge Prairie also was added in ‘84. Whihala Beach was dedicated somewhere between 1980 and ‘84. That was a big expansion of Lake County Parks Department in the 1980s.”
This park at the Grand Kankakee Marsh is unique because people can hunt and fish here. Usually the state rather than a county oversees an operation like this.
“Correct. I think there is another facility in St. Joseph County that allows hunting and fishing, but that came on after us. This park is located on the Kankakee River which makes it a prime location. It’s a very historic location.”
Buckley Homestead in Lowell?
“I believe 1979 was the first Fall Festival at Buckley. It’s the oldest continuing program that we have at the parks department. Buckley Homestead in itself is such a special place. It was a gift to us from Rose Buckley Pierce.
“When we first began to acquire the living farm at Buckley Homestead, people in Lowell would say, ‘Why do you need a farm in Lowell? There are farms all around this area.’ Well, 30 years later there aren’t so many farms, and certainly not too many farms that you can take your children to.”
It was a good move. Can you imagine what the Lowell area is going to look like in 2053? Buckley Homestead could possibly be the only farm left in Lake County.
“Jeff, one of the things I learned from working in the county parks system is that children don’t need anybody else. For instance, they get up on the train at Stoney Run and one child will say, ‘I’ll be the engineer, you can be the ticket taker and you can ride in the caboose.’
“Children play; they create stories and rules. That’s what parks and open space are all about. Children learn through play. Children are learning from the moment they’re born.”
Today’s kids need to spend more time outdoors.
“A lot of kids are scared of nature. We don’t want that. If children are given the opportunity, they will immerse themselves in nature.”
“Jeff, when we did the Forbidden Forest at Lemon Lake, I had a man from Chicago who worked for a security company. He was supposed to watch over the place for us at night. He asked me if there was security out there. “
“I told him, ‘Honey, you are the security.’ He asked me, ‘I gotta be out here in the dark by myself? Are there bears out here?’”
You’re kidding me.
“The man was out of his element. I told him that he encountered more danger in the city every day than I do out here. He didn’t show up the next day.”
You mentioned Whihala Beach. Is that a Potawatomi word?
“No. Many people think it’s an Indian word. The W-H-I stands for Whiting, the H-A stands for Hammond and the L-A stands for lakefront. My husband reads a lot of local history books. About 20 years ago, he jumped out of his chair and shouted, ‘Oh my gosh, you can’t believe what’s in this book!’ There’s list of Native American tribes from Northwest Indiana. One of them is the Whihala tribe.’
“There is no Whihala tribe. Somebody doing research didn’t do a very good job. This is how history is rewritten. Some PhD student, decades from now, is going to use this as a primary source and try to look for this ‘long-lost Whihala tribe.’”
You’re preaching to the choir. Believe me, it was a daunting task writing the script for the documentary film “Everglades of the North: The Story of the Grand Kankakee Marsh.” You have to check, double-check and triple-check your resources. What is folklore and what is gospel?
“As you well know, much of history is based on language. People tell stories. Are these stories accurate? Are they interpreted accurately?”
Sandy, isn’t it good to know that decades from now, people will know for a fact that you were 42 when I interviewed you in the summer of 2013?
As a girl, she started out splashing in a diminutive wading pool in Glen Park. Today, the woman with the PhD in leisure studies can take her grandkids to a gigantic water park at Deep River on U.S. 30.
Children can get the connection between the food on their plates and the family farm when visiting Buckley Homestead. Hikers can witness the beauty of cardinal flowers in bloom while being serenaded by bull frogs at the Grand Kankakee Marsh...
And Lake County is a better place thanks to folks like Sandy Basala.