FORT WAYNE – Here comes Niki Schmutte with a snake, or a turtle, or a fish on the end of a hook, and welcome to the best moment of her life.
It’s that moment when one of her visitors’ uneasy truce with nature becomes eye-widening wonder at it, and all the snakes, turtles and fish-on-hooks therein.
I think (the best part of her job) is working with the general public and seeing their faces light up when they learn something new or they get to see something in nature that they didn’t see before, says Schmutte, a 1988 Homestead High School grad who’s been the chief naturalist for LaPorte County Parks for 19 years. Or even just like a kid catching his first fish. That to me is the best part of it all.
I like making a difference in somebody else’s life.
And because she’s done it so well for so long, Schmutte recently got the last thing she expected for it: Recognition.
Last month she was honored by the Indiana Park and Recreation Association with its top state award, the Award of Excellence Leadership in the outstanding professional category. It’s the highest honor the association can confer upon an individual.
By all accounts, it was entirely deserved.
Niki exemplifies the true meaning of an outstanding professional. She has a track record of being a great storyteller, an invaluable fountain of facts and knowledge, and an icon as a naturalist, interpreter and environmental educator, said Tim Morgan, LaPorte County Parks superintendent.
Schmutte was floored.
I was pretty shocked and honored to receive it, she says. Especially to be honored by your peers. I didn’t foresee that.
She didn’t, after all, start out to be an icon. Her interest in the outdoors goes back a long way (When I was growing up, if I could be doing anything, I would rather be outside playing or riding my bike or in the winter ice skating, or just walking in the woods, she says), but it wasn’t until one of her teachers at Homestead, Doug Waldman, started talking to her about employment opportunities in the parks and recreation field that she really considered doing anything with her passion.
He basically showed me that there were some really cool jobs I could go into, Schmutte says. I know he’s inspired a lot of other kids at Homestead, too. I just happened to be one of probably thousands.
In Schmutte’s case, the inspiration led her to Bluffton University in Ohio, where she got a degree in recreation management. That led her to LaPorte County in 1994, where she became chief naturalist, overseeing the nature center and its programs, educating the public as an interpretive guide and teaching kids to fish.
Oh, yes: And, occasionally fielding questions not even someone with her depth of expertise can answer.
One time a child asked me how bark got its name, she says. I really didn’t have an answer, but then he said, Well it’s probably because dogs like to pee on bark, so they named it bark because of dogs.’ Thought that was kind of humorous.
What she finds rewarding, on the other hand, is what she’s always found rewarding: Getting outside, exploring a patch of woods, dropping a line in the lake at Luhr Park in LaPorte County or a friend’s private pond.
I really like to fish, she says. I do a lot of fishing.
So, young man (or woman), allow her to show you how.