by Elyse Wild • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
It all started with a stone…
While walking down a gravel path on the northwest side of Grand Rapids, then 5-year-old Mary Jane Dockeray’s attention was caught by a glimmering rock that stood out from the rest. Her decision to pick it up would set the course for the rest of her life and forever change the city of Grand Rapids. Her aunt who accompanied her told her she had just discovered a piece of quartz. For the first time, Dockeray realized rocks have their own unique qualities and monikers.
“I decided right then and there I was going to be a geologist,” Dockeray shared.
It was this excitement for the world lying below our feet that carried her through her 41-year career as a conservation lecturer with the Grand Rapids Public Museum and gave her the tenacity to establish Blandford Nature Center, which she doggedly kept open in the face of bureaucracy and budget cuts.
More than 50 years ago, Dockeray, who describes herself as shy at the time, persuaded Victor Blandford to donate 10 acres of land to the City of Grand Rapids for the purpose of giving school children a hands-on learning experience that would get them out of the classroom and up close with nature.
But her story doesn’t begin there: The land she cultivated into the city’s bustling nature center is the very ground she explored, traversed and loved as a child. Having grown up on a chicken farm just down the road from Blandford, then Collins Woods, she would often ride her bike over to the land for an afternoon of adventuring.
“We would bring our lunches with us and play around, turn over logs to see what was living underneath, play in the creek and just enjoy being out here,” she recalled with wonder. “The big trees, big deep ravines — it was something special.”
Dockeray has been imparting that sense of enchantment with the natural world to schoolchildren since 1949. Upon graduating from Michigan State University with a bachelor’s degree in geology, she began traveling to schools as an employee of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, armed with a collection of lantern slides, an immense projector and a passion for teaching students about the nature around them.
The response to her lectures from students and teachers alike was strong, and they wanted more; eventually, Dockeray developed 100 programs from which teachers could choose. Once in a while, a teacher would make a request to have students visit the natural areas Dockeray would showcase in her lessons. And so, she began taking groups of students to her beloved Collins Woods.
“From the very beginning, the biggest thing in my mind was to get their feet back on the ground— the real ground,” Dockeray said. “It was a total sensory shock to them—there was no blacktop to smell, no carbon monoxide, no restaurants…once they got out there, they realized how exciting it was.”
After several years of incorporating field trips to Collins Woods into her lessons, Dockeray was hiking on the land by herself when she was alarmed to see surveyor stakes placed along the creek.
“I was so enamored of this place, I had to do something,” Dockeray expressed.
She traced the land to Victor Blandford. Shortly after, Dockeray and her boss at the time, former Grand Rapids Public Museum Director Frank DuMond, had the fateful conversation with the Blandfords; before she knew it, the first 10-acres that would become Blandford Nature Center were in her hands.
“I was ecstatic,” she said. “I continued to take more and more groups out here.”
Finally, one day, a little girl fell into the creek and emerged sopping wet. Dockeray describes being at a loss for how to dry the girl off and decided to ask for bathrooms to be installed on the land. The museum director approved her request and then some.
“He said, ‘While you’re at it, what else would you like?’” Dockeray said.
“Her legacy is the love that Grand Rapids has for nature.” —Jason Meyer, President of Blandford Nature Center
After two years of planning and negotiating a budget with the city, Dockeray was granted permission to hire architects and design Blandford’s first welcome center exactly as she saw fit.
“No one questioned what I was doing,” she smiled. “It was wonderful. I had free range.”
The welcome center opened in the fall of 1968. Right away, calls started pouring in with requests from teachers for their students to visit the land. With the immediate popularity of the nature center, Dockeray realized she was going to need help. She put out the cry for volunteers, and the response was resounding.
“We had the most dedicated and loyal volunteers,” Dockeray noted. “They just fell into place, and they were all women.”
Dockeray laughs as she recalls the recipe cards volunteers kept at the front desk with written instructions on how to care for injured or sick animals for which they would often receive calls.
Marylin Martin began volunteering at Blandford 33 year ago as a guide and spoke of the warm, familial atmosphere cultivated by Dockeray.
“The door to Mary Jane’s office was always open,” Martin related. “The boss was right there, available to everyone. You always knew you were welcome.”
Dockeray often trained new guides on trail walks. Martin emphasized that even as a seasoned volunteer guide, an opportunity to hike in the woods with Dockeray was not to be missed.
“You always learned something new,” Martin said. “It’s an adventure — a thrill — to be on the trail with her.”
For many Grand Rapidians, Blandford is the first place where they had their first— and perhaps only— encounter with wildlife, whether it was Spike the Porcupine, Edgar Allen Crow, Winks the Owl or Bob the Bobcat. Dockeray explains that animals were never part of the original plan for the nature center, but it quickly became the place where people would bring injured creatures found on their property or the side of the road.
“The animals took over,” she explained. “People still come out here and remember stories about the animals we have had over the years.”
In 1973, Dockeray expanded the nature center’s programming and started the Blandford Environmental Educational Program, an alternative schooling experience for sixth-grade students in Grand Rapids Public Schools.
The program is still active today and is in the top five percent in the state for overall student performance.
As a fringe benefit to city programming and often the first thing to get cut from strained budgets, uncertain times were never far from the reality of life at the nature center.
“Regardless of that, we survived,” Dockeray said. “We had good people come in— volunteers who made life difficult for City Hall during the hard times.”
She decided to retire in 1990 after a particularly precarious year of slashed funding and pressure from city officials. For Dockeray, retirement did not mean leaving the nature center but rather serving it better.
“I thought, ‘This is a good time to retire because I can’t say what I really want to say as long as I am an employee of the city,’”Dockeray divulged.
Dockeray continued to work at the nature center as a freelance consultant and lecturer. In 2003, Blandford was cut entirely from the city’s budget. In 2009, after several years of mismanagement, the Wege Foundation donated five years of funding for an Executive Director to stabilize the center. Fortunately, they were successful. Now an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Blandford thrives on 143 acres with its own board, dynamic programming and upwards of 60,000 visitors a year; and Dockery is there every step of the way.
“Her legacy is the love that Grand Rapids has for nature,” Jason Meyer, CEO of the nature center, said. “This place would not exist without her. I am so happy to still have her on our team, even at 90-years-old.”
Along with spending one day a week at Blandford, Dockery still leads walks through the lush, winding woods. Funny, informative and quick-witted, she deftly guides groups along the trails she knows so well with a walking stick that doubles as a pointer. Upon spotting a seemingly indistinct plant sprouting from the forest ground, Dockeray lights up, and the tip of her walking stick twirls through the air around her subject like a wand as she explains the intricacies of its biology. She also fills her walks with stories of her many years at the center.
“Her passion and curiosity draw people into nature,” Meyer stated. “I’ve watched over and over as she starts to tell a story, and people are like moths to a flame. She has an incredible knack for connecting people to nature in unique ways.”
“It’s an adventure — a thrill — to be on the trail with her.” —Marylin Martin, Blandford Volunteer
These days, one doesn’t have to look far to see Dockeray’s mark on Blandford: The newly erected welcome center bears her name; the former welcome center, now being renovated into classrooms, boasts a quote from her, “Nothing is accomplished unless somebody cares.”; Bert’s Meadow is christened for dedicated Blandford volunteer and Dockeray’s fiancés of 16 years, Bert Hewett; in the lobby, people can purchase a copy of Dockeray’s autobiography, “Rock On, Lady,” which she published in 2013.
On Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., visitors might notice a spry, smiling Dockeray sitting at a small desk crafted from polished red oak in the corner of the welcome center lobby. She describes the spot as the perfect place for her to continue her work.
“When they built the new welcome center, I knew right where I wanted to be,” she explained. “I can see everyone, and everyone can see me. I can be involved in what’s going on.”
For Dockeray, witnessing the nature center flourish is all the reward she needs for a lifetime of unwavering dedication.
“I never dreamed all of this would ever be here,” she said, gesturing to the exposed beams on the ceiling, the raw timber that makes up the vast welcome desk made from Blandford’s own fallen trees, the indoor pond where turtles meander, the pens where birds of prey can be viewed and the entrance to the auditorium where events and lectures are held.
And let’s not forget the walls; as she runs her hands over the smooth concrete of the lobby walls, Dockeray will tell you that they contain semi-precious stones with what one can easily imagine is the same excitement she felt as a child when she picked up the stone that started it all.