SHELBY TOWNSHIP — Two months short of 33 years as a naturalist and park interpreter, Mark Szabo — commonly known as “Mark from the Park” — will enter retirement.
His last day at the Stony Creek Metropark Nature Center is Jan. 27.
Szabo said the biggest highlight of his career has been his hand in the new nature center — playing a major role in designing exhibit concepts and writing exhibit text, as well as helping coin the theme, “Waters of Change.”
Another proud moment, he said, was his discovery of the presence of the original owner of the park property, Charles Hodgens, in a painting by Irving Bacon at the Henry Ford Museum. The painting depicts a banquet hosted by Henry Ford in honor of the 50th anniversary of Thomas Edison’s invention of the electric light bulb. With permission, a copy of the painting now hangs in the nature center.
A large part of his career has been teaching through music, whether he is conducting guitar-aided sing-alongs around a campfire, singing a cappella on a hike through the nature trails or performing nature songs with his friend, Foster Brown.
Szabo professionally recorded several educational nature songs and also plays upright bass with his band, La Compagnie, founded in 2007 in an effort to preserve French Canadian and Celtic folklore, music and dance.
He also often assumed the role of a French fur-trading voyageur as he guided patrons on canoe tours explaining Detroit’s heritage in beaver pelt hats.
When the Huron-Clinton Metroparks’ nature centers decided to call their employees “park interpreters” instead of “naturalists,” Szabo said he saw the title as more fitting.
“What we do is try to bridge that gap between experts and the public to package information that’s easy to understand and entertaining, but accurate,” he said. “Interpretation strives to be relevant to the everyday lives of the audience members.”
On Nov. 17, 2012, Szabo received the National Association for Interpretation’s Master Front-Line Interpreter Award at the association’s annual conference in Hampton, Va. He said it was an honor to receive the award in front of 5,000 of his peers who work in nature centers, museums, zoos and battlegrounds.
“You never feel like you’re that great or that good at what you do, and there are so many people that are,” he said.
Szabo began at Stony Creek Metropark in 1989. Before that, he worked at Kensington Metropark since 1981. And before that, he worked closer to his roots in parks near Akron, Ohio.
Szabo grew up with an instilled passion for the natural world and received his Bachelor of Science degree in natural resources from Ohio State University in 1980.
His father, Bert Szabo, was the first naturalist for the Akron Metropolitan Park District in 1964. After Bert Szabo lost his job managing a farm in Hudson, Ohio, Mark Szabo said his father began doing maintenance for the park district making $1.50 an hour with a master’s degree in agriculture.
“Then, the director found out that Dad had all this knowledge and decided to start a nature program,” Szabo said. “He had Dad start to do programs and got my father to start writing nature articles.”
Park Operations Manager Gary Hopp has worked with Mark Szabo for more than two decades.
“Mark’s been fabulous to work with. He relates very well with the patrons,” Hopp said. “They all speak fondly of Mark and are disappointed to hear he’s retiring. Mark’s done an excellent job. We’re fortunate to have him.”
Charlie Shelton has been a park interpreter at the Stony Creek Metropark Nature Center for one year. Before that, he worked at Wolcott Mill Metropark.
“Mark is a fantastic teacher and mentor for those of us going into the field and learning the ropes,” Shelton said. “He’s very good at helping people understand the basics and allowing people to add their own flavor.”
“We’re going to miss him. … He’s the kind of person, whether he’s dealing with kids or adults, who knows how to keep their attention.”
Mark Szabo said his wife, Vianna Szabo, is an artist who is nationally sought-after to do workshops teaching oil and pastel painting and portraits. He said he wishes to travel with her more and accompany her to an upcoming workshop in Florence, Italy.
“I feel that it’s a good time for me to move on,” he said. “I have no regrets. It’s been a blessing and a wonderful opportunity.”
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