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A natural pick for award Great Plains Nature Center director recognized

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Oct. 22, 2010, at 12:01 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, Sep. 10, 2012, at 7:59 p.m.

Bob Gress came to Wichita in 1979 to lead school classes on nature hikes and to present wildlife programs to people of all ages.

He's still here and basically doing the same things.

But now his accomplishments are being ranked with prominent scientists, doctors and college educators.

Gress, Great Plains Nature Center director and a noted wildlife photographer, is one of three recipients of this year's Emporia State University Distinguished Alumni awards.

"He has a great history and such a great dedication and success with the Great Plains Nature Center," said Tyler Curtis, Emporia State Director of Alumni Relations.

Curtis said Emporia State has averaged three alumni awards per year since 1960.

Gress, 58, was selected from a pool of nominees by a panel that includes Emporia State teachers and alumni board members.

"It's certainly an honor but it's kind of humbling and confusing for me," Gress said. "I'm excited, but it's still kind of 'why me?' "

Those who've worked with Gress aren't surprised by the honor.

"Bob's been pretty much the driving force behind the Nature Center since the beginning," said Marc Murrell, who has worked with Gress for about 14 years. "He's without question one of the top bird photographers in Kansas and probably the nation. He's got such a huge following."

Born and raised in northern Kansas, Gress received a BS in biology from Emporia State in 1974 and an MS in 1976.

He took a job as naturalist with the city of Wichita when there were no job openings with state or federal wildlife agencies.

"Actually (the Wichita job) fit nicely because I was wanting to get involved in wildlife education," Gress said. "When I got here I started having a blast taking kids on hikes and giving nature programs."

In the late 1980s, Gress was one of the catalysts for building what's now the Great Plains Nature Center at Chisholm Creek Park, 29th and Woodlawn.

The full-fledged education center opened in 1996. It and the nearby hiking trails attract about 150,000 visitors per year.

Murrell said about another 50,000 attend roughly 1,600 nature programs presented by the center's staff of 10 biologists and naturalists.

Through his photography, Gress is still educating many thousands every year.

To date, about 3,200 of Gress' outdoors photos have been published in more than 35 magazines and 40 books. He's authored or co-authored five books.

The Nature Center utilized Gress' photos on its Faces of the Great Plains poster series.

So far the center has published and distributed eight posters that showcase assorted birds, mammals and reptiles. Gress estimates they've given out about 80,000 of the free posters.

His photos make up about 80 percent of the eight free field guides the nature center has published, too. Gress estimates about 200,000 of those have been distributed.

Murrell said Gress' ability to help the public directly remains one of his top qualities.

Gress is often the go-to guy for those who call or walk in with difficult questions about wildlife.

Murrell said he's never seen Gress hesitate from helping someone, no matter their age or outdoors experience.

"He's now working with kids of the kids he worked with years ago," Murrell said. "It's amazing that he's been at wildlife education for about 30 years and he's still just as excited about it as he's ever been. He's one of a kind."

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