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Her Love of the Natural World Defines Her Life and Her Encore

There’s hardly a person in the Grand Rapids area who hasn’t been touched by the hands and heart of Mary Jane Dockeray, founder and curator emeritus of the Blandford Nature Center (Blandford).

And in these, her Encore years, she’s taking deliberate steps to continue telling her story in hopes of cultivating relationships that will help growing audiences recognize the awe and wonder imbued in a natural world that sometimes seems to shrink against a backdrop of mushrooming technology.

“One of my chief hobbies right now is my health,” says Mary Jane, who is more apt to bounce than walk, especially if she’s outside, reveling in an environmental milieu that includes flora and fauna and – given her role as expert geologist -- especially rocks.

If you want a tour of the spacious garden that swallows up the entire back yard of the home she keeps on Grand Rapids’ north end, be prepared for a lesson in all things biota.

And for the way in which she teaches – by conducting nature tours afoot, whether it’s at her own place or Blandford – staying fit is vital. And so you’ll find Mary Jane patronizing the pool at two area Ys and otherwise eschewing television and other passive pastimes in favor of more animated choices.

“I’m a health nut,” she observes, explaining how that’s an important element allowing her to continue leading tours for Michigan Audubon, serving as a volunteer at Blandford one afternoon a week, and conducting a whole host of classes on behalf of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Aquinas College.

She’s also considering a resurrection of tours she’s conducted throughout downtown Grand Rapids, which focus on the types of stone and rock used to construct iconic buildings – everything from the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel (the floor in the main lobby boasts tile impregnated with gastropods) to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (rife with river limestone quarried from the banks of the Grand River back in the 1840s).

Then there’s the new visitor center at Blandford to mind, dedicated in her name on her 89th birthday this past March, which will triple the capacity for hosting individuals and groups at the 143-acre gem that once served as Dockeray’s personal playground before it was converted into a Center, thanks largely to her, in 1964. The Mary Jane Dockeray Visitor Center is set to open in late summer of 2017.

And of course, there’s her memoir to continue pushing – she wrote it out longhand on yellow pads and still refuses to embrace the computer age -- with all proceeds from sales of “Rock On, Lady”  going to Blandford, where it’s available for sale.

She thinks nothing of stopping in mid-sentence to bend down and grab a rock and caress it like a newborn’s head, admiring features that range from texture to color to grain size to its place in history.

She still misses her long-time partner Bert Hewett (a meadow at Blandford is named in his honor), but she’s otherwise surrounded by friends who continue to marvel at the ways in which she models a life that nods to the wonders wrought by the natural world.

She’s especially touched to meet adults who, as students long ago at Blandford, still remember “going to their magic spot to write in their journals or just sit and take in the surroundings.”

She wishes more of us would do that today, so we’d grow up with an appreciation for beauty that is ours for the observing. “I’ve found that many adults have been deprived of these experiences in the bustle and artificiality of the 21st Century,” she writes in her book. “Life has dimmed the memories of rustlings in the woods, the bubbling of a stream, the beauty of autumn and the rebirth of spring and spirit.”

Thanks to Mary Jane Dockeray and the legacy reflected in the Blandford Nature Center, we’ll always have a place of awe where we can go to reflect, re-energize and give gratitude to our special Lady of the Rocks.