My Volunteering Story: Dennis Grzezinski

Written by Urban Ecology Center
    Saturday, 02 November 2019
My Volunteering Story: Dennis Grzezinski

We are excited to share this special piece by Urban Ecology Center (UEC) Board Director Dennis Grzezinski. Dennis has been volunteering at the UEC almost since its inception and has had a huge role in getting us to where we are today. We are proud of his accomplishments and thrilled that he continues to be such a strong UEC advocate.

Dennis was our pick for Volunteer of the Month in November 2019. We often ask our volunteers to list the experiences they've had at UEC and he wrote the article below that is part autobiography, part UEC history, and completely heartwarming. Thank you, Dennis, for everything you do!

Nature-based beginnings

I was raised on the outskirts of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, with farm fields, orchards, meadows, woods, wetlands, streams, ponds and a river nearby. I spent summers playing outdoors, later working as a golf course caddy enjoying the opportunities to explore the woods and waterways for errant golf balls. Thinking I was on my way to be a chemist or nuclear physicist, I spent parts of two high school summers at National Science Foundation programs for high school students studying mathematics, physics, and chemistry.

During my college years at Princeton University, I found my academic interests switching from science to economics and politics, graduating with a degree in Public and International Affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School. I then studied law at Yale Law School, and after graduating, returned to Wisconsin for a 2-year judicial clerkship with a federal district court judge. After the clerkship, I joined a small law firm, and practiced in the fields of civil litigation and business law.

In 1989, former Mayor John Norquist appointed me as one of the Commissioners of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, where I served for 18 years, including 4 years as Commission Chair. In 1991, I left the law firm of which I was a member to start my own private practice, and have largely focused on public interest side environmental law and environmental justice work since then. I am now nearing retirement as a practicing lawyer.

New work at UEC

Dennis, his wife Jane, and friends sharing a beer at UEC's Grown Up Summer Camp

Photo by Anna Aragon of Anglés Creations

Living on the East side of Milwaukee, near UWM with my wife, Jane Porath, and our two daughters, Riverside Park was one of my family's neighborhood parks. After community members formed the Friends of Riverside Park in 1991 and later brought a trailer to use as program space, we enjoyed participating in its events and activities. I occasionally provided legal or political advice to Else Ankel, its founder.

As Else approached retirement in 1998, the organization hired Ken Leinbach as full-time Executive Director and Else convinced me to join the UEC Board of Directors. Ken and I shared our first board meeting together and I shortly found myself elected as Vice President. In 2001, I became the Board President and the organization's name changed to Riverside Urban Environmental Center and then to Urban Ecology Center.

That original trailer, which had running water when it was raining because the roof leaked, soon became inadequate to support the UEC's growing school and community programs. By 2004, I had helped the UEC locate the site for the current Riverside building, negotiate with the Milwaukee Public School District, Milwaukee County, and the City of Milwaukee to get approval for the UEC's plans for Riverside Park, and work with the Center's building committee and architects to design the building and supervise engineers and contractors in building it. Meanwhile, UEC staff and a talented capital campaign committee had raised more than the $4.5 million campaign goal. On the day that the Riverside Park facility opened to the public, I stepped down as board president, and I have continued to serve as one of the UEC Board Directors ever since then.

Continuing leadership

I continue to help negotiate UEC's leases and other legal agreements including the opening, expansion, and recent approval of UEC's proposal to expand and improve the Washington Park branch.

I have also agreements regarding construction and ownership of the Menomonee Valley branch facility and the UEC's role in the creation and maintenance of Three Bridges Park as well as creation of the Milwaukee Rotary Memorial Arboretum. I am grateful that talented attorneys with real estate practices have taken over ever-larger portions of the legal work in recent years, as the UEC's operations and facilities have grown larger and more complex. I have enjoyed participating on the task forces and committees that have been involved in bringing each of these projects and expansions of UEC into being, and currently serve as co-chair of the Riverside Branch Advisory Committee, and as a member of the Washington Park Branch Advisory Committee.

Dennis talking with UEC Intensive participant

Photo by Erin Bloodgood of Bloodgood Foto LLC

In recent years I have greatly enjoyed participating in the Center's week-long Intensives for people from other cities around the United States and the world. The Intensives introduce and educate them about the Center's model approach to combining the functions of an environmental education center, a community center, and a nature center/steward of natural land in an urban setting. Whenever and wherever possible, I try to serve as an ambassador, or evangelist, to the larger community for the Center and its mission. I'm happy to say that I have gotten so much more from my long experience as a Center volunteer than I have given, and I look forward to continuing to help the Center succeed in its great mission of connecting people in cities to nature and each other.


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