A college field trip proved to be the first step on Steve Widowski’s path to the Illinois Outdoor Hall of Fame.
Widowski, a longtime employee of the U.S. Forest Service and Vienna resident, was named to the 2018 class along with Diane Banta of Chicago, Jerry Beverlin of Petersburg, David R. Grohne of Wilmington and Sam Oliver of Barrington.
They were honored Aug. 18 at the Illinois State Fair, and induction ceremonies will be held Sept. 21 in Springfield.
Widowski, a Chicago native, was pursuing a degree in wildlife biology at the University of Illinois-Chicago, when a field trip took him to uncharted territory — Southern Illinois.
“I came down on a field trip for a week, and I didn’t realize what a jewel we had in Southern Illinois,” he said.
That week piqued his interest. When he completed his degree, Widowski applied for graduate school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He studied under W.D. Klimstra at SIUC’s Cooperative Wildlife Research Lab. Klimstra was named to the Illinois Outdoor Hall of Fame in 2005.
After receiving his master’s degree, Widowski took a circuitous route back to Southern Illinois.
“My first job in the field, I worked as a researcher for about 6 or 7 months and went out and got a job in the Cleveland National Forest in California,” Widowski said. “I worked there six years, I was a wildlife biologist and I moved up to Lake Tahoe, where I was a fish and wildlife biologist for about six years.”
Then, the magnetic pull of the Shawnee National Forest brought him back to Southern Illinois.
“I came back from Lake Tahoe to the Shawnee National Forest,” Widowski said. “I worked in every district in the forest and in Harrisburg. I’m probably the only person to have an office in each of the forest’s five offices.”
An avid waterfowler, Widowski worked for 23 years to improve habitat in the Big Muddy River bottoms and at the Oakwood Bottoms Greentree Reservoir. Most of the improvements that have been implemented in the past two years are the result of Widowski’s work.
“I am certainly proud of the work I’ve done in the floodplains of the Mississippi River,” he said. “I did a lot of the planning work for Oakwood Bottoms. I did some of the original planning on some of that. I was part of the forest planning team, the plan they are following now. We spent quite a few years doing that. I worked on the Middle Mississippi partnership.”
Through his career at the Shawnee National Forest, Widowski said he tried to connect SIU and the Cooperative Wildlife Research Lab to the work he was doing in the forest. Some of that work included a 60,000 acre purchase, the Big Muddy Wetlands.
“I worked a lot of the restoration and planning,” he said. “They were flooded bean fields when we acquired them. Now they are cypress swamps. Those are things I look back on. I still work part-time on them. I work with HeartLands Conservancy out of Mascoutah. I’m kind of their special projects person. I’m working on some of the grants they’ve got, do the land acquisition work and restoration work on some of those properties.”
Despite a lifetime of service, Widowski said he never thought of the Outdoor Hall of Fame.
“It came as a surprise, a big surprise,” he said. “I didn’t have a clue I was even being considered. I wasn’t sure, why me? You don’t think you’ve done enough to be considered for those things. I just did my job, things I liked to do, things I enjoyed doing.”