AMBOY – Russ Gremel thought keeping the fruits of an investment he made 70 years ago all to himself was for the birds.
Instead, the 98-year-old Jefferson Park native, World War II veteran and celebrated scoutmaster wanted to put the money into something that could have a lasting and far-reaching impact on others.
The $1,007 he spent on Walgreens stock, back when the store sold 5 pints of ice cream for a buck, has grown to north of $2 million, all of which he donated to the Illinois Audubon Society.
In turn, the society paired a portion of those funds with a $1.6 million land acquisition grant from the Chicago-based Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation to more than double its footprint of protected wetlands in southeast Amboy.
About 100 naturegoers wet their beaks Sunday and took tours of the newly dedicated, 395-acre Gremel Wildlife Sanctuary, about 2 miles away from the 302-acre Amboy Marsh Nature Preserve established in 2012.
More than a dozen of those attending were Eagle Scouts, ranging from teens to a 72-year-old who came to honor Gremel’s 60-plus years in the scouts and explore the land that bears his name.
Francis O’Byrne, who joined Gremel’s troop in 1971, said he has left a trail of dedication and generosity that has helped shape countless people.
“Every one of us here has been touched by Rus,” he said. “There’s story after story after story; it’s a ripple effect.”
Gremel humbly told the crowd he didn’t deserve the praise and that he didn’t earn the money; he took a risk and Walgreens’ hard work and success did the rest.
“Don’t be afraid to step up, don’t be afraid to try something new,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to be yourself.”
Society Executive Director Jim Herkert said it was fitting to tie Gremel’s name to the sanctuary’s continuing legacy of letting people experience nature first hand.
“His commitment to conservation is really inspiring,” he said.
The sanctuary boasts about 200 species of birds, more than 400 species of plants, and black oak sand savannas and high quality sedge meadow that falls into the one-tenth of 1 percent of such land in the state.
Illinois purchased the land for $2.1 million in December. The site was formerly home to Augustana College’s Green Wing Environmental Laboratory, its largest field station for research, training and outreach activities.
The college retained about 15 acres of the land, and students and faculty will still have access through a partnership with the society.
Volunteers from the Audubon’s local Birdsong chapter survey, catalog and maintain the combined 700 acres at both sites and also host educational programs and events.
Dennis O’Brien, executive director of the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, said that since the foundation’s inception in 1999, it has awarded 174 grants totaling $64 million to protect more than 26,000 acres across Illinois.
He lauded the society for its efforts to protect wildlife habitats and natural areas for future generations.
The society is the state’s oldest private conservation organization and has invested about $11 million in preserving nearly 4,000 acres of land and water throughout the state.
“We know the property is in good hands and will be taken care of,” he said.
The Illinois Audubon Society's preserves about 700 acres of habitats and wetlands with the Amboy Marsh Nature Preserve, 1701 Morman Road, and the newly dedicated Gremel Wildlife Sanctuary, 1881 Lewis Road.