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Kent Fuller leads the ‘useful’ life as conservationist

Kent Fuller sits among the prairie plants at Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie. (Jeff Danna, Tribune reporter)

Kent Fuller sits among the prairie plants at Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie. (Jeff Danna, Tribune reporter)

Surrounded by prairie plants, Glenview resident Kent Fuller sat on a bench on a recent afternoon taking in his surroundings.

For years, he has helped cultivate the vegetation in this area, the former site of a U.S. Naval Air Base. Last month the village honored him by naming the land after him — the Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie.

“They stuck my name on it, much to my surprise,” Fuller said. “It’s very flattering.”

The honor was a gift of sorts upon Fuller’s retirement at chairman of the village’s Natural Resources Commission. A longtime village volunteer commissioner and board of trustees member, Fuller has been one of the most prominent and vocal advocates for the preservation of local natural treasures, including the prairie that now bears his name.

Fuller grew up in Glenview at Dewes Street and Shermer Road when the north suburbs were largely still farmland.

“I’d become intrigued by metropolitan growth,” he said. “I got interested in that in high school.”

Of particular curiosity was how urbanization affected natural resources. After high school, he traveled east to study forestry at Penn State University. From time to time, he visited Glenview to see his family, and to a person fascinated by urban vs. natural land use, the population growth in his hometown was intriguing.

After college, though, he stayed in Pennsylvania. He took a job with the state to work for its park acquisition program, which authorized grants for urban planning. He had obtained a master’s degree in forest management with a minor in economics, but he continued to take courses in urban planning.

“I wanted to see how the whole thing worked,” he said.

Anxious to move back to Glenview, Fuller took a job with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in its Chicago regional office. It was around that time the Glenview Plan Commission was considering transforming the Chicago River through the village, making it less of a drainage ditch and more of an amenity.

Part of the plan, Fuller said, involved extending a road to complete the street grid. A number of residents stood up at a meeting and objected to the plan. But, Fuller said, he addressed the commission and expressed his support. That comment led to his appointment to the Plan Commission in 1968, his first foray into village government.

“I was working in the federal government, which is an abstraction,” he said. “It’s good to be working at the local level to really get a feel for how it works.”

During his time on the commission, he helped stall a proposed development on the site of what is now The Grove national historic site, which was once owned and inhabited by area settler John Kenicott. Residents banded together, urging the Glenview Park District to purchase and preserve the site, and eventually, it did.

Preserving The Grove, which involved a new village zoning designation, was a precursor to the preservation of the Air Station Prairie, Fuller said. That would occur years later, though, and in the meantime, he was working for the newly created Environmental Protection Agency. To Fuller, it was a dream job. He said he had imagined working for such an agency long before one existed.

When Fuller was elected to the village board, he had no intention of serving long — one term was his thinking. He ended up serving three.

During his tenure, the federal government announced it was selling the air base, which occupied a massive section of land in the center of the village and was a boon to the area. Fuller said that when the announcement about the base closure came, he walked around the area and found that prairie plants were growing on the land.

Fuller became an advocate of the prairie’s preservation. After expert studies, lawsuits and general controversy over the land, about 32 acres of prairie was preserved, Fuller said.

“The bottom line is the prairie grew from inches,” he said. “This land, as I tell kids who come out here, was a prairie pretty much since the ice melted.”

That’s about 100 centuries as prairie. In the grand scheme of time, he said, its life as farmland and an air base was miniscule.

After the battle over what became The Glen and Air Station Prairie, Fuller became the chairman of the village’s newly formed Natural Resource Commission. And although he has since retired from that position, as well as his full-time job, he — along with his wife, Jeryl — remains committed to preserving natural areas.

“My goal when I retired was to spend half my life outdoors,” Fuller said.

Much of that time is spent working with the North Branch Restoration Project, a group of “kindred spirits” who meet several times a year to naturalize and clean up the North Branch of the Chicago River, and as a volunteer steward of Miami Woods.

But he also spends much of his time in his namesake prairie spraying and removing invasive plants.

“Each year the prairie plants have been getting stronger,” he said.

He may have kept himself busy over the years, but Fuller said he’s tried to follow the wisdom of the great Chicago planner Daniel Burnham, who believed in being “useful.”

Looking out at the Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Fuller said he believes he has lived up to that credo.

“Overall, I’m happy with where Glenview is,” he said.

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