Story and Photo by Alice Gerard
Senior Contributing Writer
When Huth Road Elementary School teachers Dianne Tiede and Sharon Thompson first explored Eco Island in the late 1980s, they were excited about the school district having its own nature center.
“All you have to do is say ‘nature center,’ and we’re there,” Tiede said. “So, we came. We brought our kids. We walked around outside. There was an established trail. There was a pond there. There were some teachers earlier, before we started, who had done that.
“And then, we wanted to come inside. That was where we were a little taken aback. The walls were painted blue with brown on the bottom, and the floor was black asbestos. And, of course, you have to do something with the chairs and tables that nobody wants. And the ceiling was sort of slanted, and the lights were on chains, and they all hung.”
Tiede, who became coordinator of Eco Island in 1990 and who retired from that position in 2022, shared her recollections of how Eco Island became the science museum and nature center for the Grand Island Central School District. She spoke at a reception to honor her, held Aug. 28 at Eco Island. Tiede was honored with plaques that will be displayed next to a newly planted tree and on an inside wall, and a garden paver – a handmade gift for her from Cyndi Booker, who has served as coordinator of Eco Island since September 2022.
Booker explained how Eco Island came to be: “It was an abandoned missile site and, in 1994, Grand Island acquired the former missile base. In 1986, Grand Island received a grant to turn it into a nature center. She (Tiede) created the first outdoor trail guide so the kids could walk around outside. There is a beautiful walking trail area out there. We also take walks around the pond. It’s just beautiful. So many exciting things have happened. The one time I was taking the kids out for a walk in the fall, and we scared a deer. It made a big rattling against the cage, and we had two classes of kids out. Suddenly, it darted across the yard. The kids yelled, ‘Whoa!’ It was nature’s finest.
“In 1993, a hallway was built on the side of the building. The hallway that we use now wasn’t there before. In 1991-93, to the best of our recollection, the government was still using some of the back halls. In 1993, they were finally out. They were remediating the area and were removing the missile silos and things like that.
“Dianne and I both shared this passion and, as I have been an Eco Island coordinator, having taken the torch from Dianne, I have been filled with so much awe. Even though I knew so much about Eco Island, it just scratched the surface. I’m still digging and finding more. I am so happy and so excited to be able to share with you some things about Dianne and give her the recognition that she so deserves. She’s an amazing woman, and she’s an inspiration for us all.
“Dianne brought in artists, friends, and Grand Island employees to paint murals and create beautiful spaces throughout the nature center.”
Artists who were invited to paint murals, chairs and other things to create the “beautiful spaces” included Peg Bastian, retired first grade teacher at Huth Road Elementary School; Dave Jarzab, Grand Island graduate and art student in 1992; Kristina Laurendi; and Sue Latona. Woodworker Keith Dodge created furnishings for the center.
“He built a cabinet,” Booker explained. “Anything you see here that was made of wood, that looks beautiful, he’s had his hand in. We were so lucky to have him. When I was a second-grade teacher at Kaegebein, he built beautiful built-in custom shelving. It was just amazing.”
Tiede said she received a lot of support from the school district in her quest to transform the former Nike missile base into an educational center.
“In order to get anything done, it has to go through the buildings and grounds department,” she said. “When I said what I wanted to do, Buildings and Grounds Superintendent Don Perry would smile. Eventually, everything we wanted, we got. All the cabinets. All the different shapes. All the different games you see here. They might have been my idea, but they just would have been an idea if it weren’t for Don.
“Much of what we have here involves the community or the school district or the PTAs or the school board. It’s really a Grand Island center. So, you’re all to thank for this treasure.
“Now, Cyndi had mentioned and showed you this table here. Thirty animals were painted on it. They look like photographs. Our friend, Sue Canavan, taught third grade, and she retired. I was happy to see her. I asked her if she would like to do some painting. It’s a long table that’s over there. It’s a treasure.”
Others who helped transform the space from an abandoned missile base to Eco Island included Boy Scouts.
“Dianne was also able to get Cub Scout troops to do some of their projects,” Booker said. “In the mammals’ room, there is a display here with the animal skulls and the animals, and it’s a matching game. You can find out what that animal ate. It’s lovely. Just wonderful. There are important learning opportunities (for the students), as well. That’s what it’s all about.
“Another Scouting project right here in this main room are these bird nest boxes. You can lift open the flaps, and you can see through Plexiglas actual bird nests in there. The kids are getting a real first-hand view of what bird nests look like for different birds. I’m still learning.”
Tiede worked on creating a memorable experience for both teachers and students. She produced materials that are still available in Eco Island. These include notebooks and binders filled with information about anything connected with nature, Booker explained.
“It really was a helpful aid for teachers. It got them in the door,” Booker said. “They knew that Dianne was their advocate, trying to give them the best learning experience possible. She also included training for teachers, for teachers to come and use the facility. She really wanted them to know what Eco Island was about. She would do an orientation, and I’m still doing that now.”
Although Tiede started work as Eco Island coordinator in 1990, she didn’t start collecting data until 2008. Between 2008-22, there were 978 trips to Eco Island, with 22,628 student visits.
“I can’t think of any other school district that has a built-in, homemade science museum for our students,” Grand Island Central School District Superintendent Brian Graham said. “It’s really an exciting place. Although the numbers aren’t as accurate, just because of missing data, Dianne has influenced well over 20,000 people here in our school district.”
Booker expressed the joy she experiences as coordinator of Eco Island, a joy she observed in Tiede: “This is a fun job.
“The ultimate goal is making a memorable experience for children. Getting them to be able to talk at home about what’s going on. Having them take a look at nature in a different lens so they continue asking questions and showing an appreciation for the world around us.
Booker said she wanted to offer “A special thanks to the Grand Island staff. I think you should get the takeaway that it takes a village to create this beautiful center, but even to run this event. I had so many people coming in today. Our custodians, buildings and grounds. They are just amazing staff. We’re so lucky to be here in Grand Island in such a fine school district.”
Tiede said she is thankful for Booker: “She put all this together. Another thing about Cyndi is she took over for me, and it’s been a year already. It’s just great. Thank you to all my friends and family. Actually, I feel that many of you are my family. For coming here and celebrating this growing up of Eco Island.”
Tiede said she most enjoyed “Seeing the kids use (Eco Island). Seeing the kids get excited. Instead of just using books and doing papers, getting to touch what’s here, opening flaps and seeing what’s underneath. Being interactive. Using microscopes, binoculars.”
After retirement, Tiede plans on focusing on enjoying life: “I enjoy spending time with friends, card making, reading, walks in formal and natural settings, visiting and touring new places. Someday, my husband and I would like to tour Greece, Turkey and Egypt.”