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Burpee on the Rise

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The past several years have been financially difficult for all non-profits and Burpee Museum of Natural History was particularly hard hit. Thanks to the devotion of those who prize this community jewel, a promising new chapter begins. Let us introduce you to the impressive new leadership team that’s making good things happen.

Burpee’s dynamic new leadership team. Standing are Anne Weerda, executive director, and Dennis Harezlak, president of the board of trustees. Seated are Joe Mathews, director of paleontology, and Alexandra Koch, education director.

Burpee’s dynamic new leadership team. Standing are Anne Weerda, executive director, and Dennis Harezlak, president of the board of trustees. Seated are Joe Mathews, director of paleontology, and Alexandra Koch, education director.

Rockford is among very few cities of its size to possess a treasure as extraordinary as the Burpee Museum of Natural History. But like the creatures it celebrates, the museum has endured some dark days.

“Now things are turning around and this is actually starting to be fun,” says Dr. Dennis Harezlak, president of the Burpee board of trustees and a retired school superintendent. He served as volunteer executive director of the museum the past two years.

“When I took over at Burpee, the museum was encountering great financial difficulties,” he says. “Financial problems arose from a downturn in the economy. State grant money was awarded but not paid out. An aggressive expansion of the museum caused debt and some costly traveling exhibits underperformed. Over the past two years, the board of trustees worked diligently to get a handle on the finances. I’m pleased to report we’ve made tremendous progress.”

Burpee has paid off its bills, one by one, and is living within its means. It employs about 50 percent as many employees as it did in 2004. Like most nonprofit institutions across Illinois, it continues to face financial challenges.

“All museums and nonprofits struggle for donations from an ever-decreasing donor base as corporations flee Illinois,” notes Harezlak. “The majority of the museum’s income comes from admissions, rentals, donations/sponsorships and grants.”

Because most federal grants are reserved for larger cities, the museum is focused on applying to private foundations. It recently beat out several larger museums to receive a $47,000 grant from the Utah and Montana land management bureaus to be used for upgrades that will help it to preserve fossil specimens properly.

Writing grants is time-consuming work, but Harezlak expects to have more time for it now that he has stepped out of the executive director role. He’ll continue overseeing the museum’s budget as president of the board of trustees and feels fortunate to hand off the executive director title to someone as highly qualified and enthusiastic about natural science as Anne Weerda.

“I’m so excited to be a part of Burpee Museum. It’s my passion,” says Weerda, whose undergraduate specialties are molecular biology and media. “The natural world around us is precious. Just think: There are certain plants and animals right here in Winnebago County that don’t exist anyplace else. Understanding our world through science is a critical part of being good stewards of it.”

Weerda holds a Master of Science in Education and Social Policy from Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill., and a Master of Education in Leadership and Supervision from National Louis University in Chicago. She’s served on the Burpee board since 2014.

Weerda worked at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, taught high school science in Chicago for six years, mentored teachers in Edison science curriculum at charter schools across the nation, and served as curriculum director for Winnebago Public Schools for five years, where she met Harezlak, then superintendent. She’s also the founder of Kids at the Core LLC, a professional development company for teachers. She’s married with three small children and breeds monarch butterflies in her kitchen … just because.

Weerda wants to develop out-of-the-box ways to help more people benefit from the extraordinary collections at Burpee.

“They don’t do people any good sitting in a storage room,” she says. “I envision a scenario in which we can replicate some of our items with a 3-D scanner/printer and check them out to teachers to use in their existing science curriculum.

“Your students are learning about turtles? We’ll send you this cool turtle shell we unearthed,” she says. “You’re studying dinosaurs? Here are 10 types of dinosaur teeth we’ve collected.”

It’s just one of many ideas Weerda is exploring. And she welcomes input from anyone in the community who has fresh ideas on how to partner with Burpee and best use its assets.

“The possibilities are endless,” she says.

Weerda manages a highly qualified young leadership team that includes Josh Mathews as director of paleontology and Alexandra Benson Koch as education director.

Mathews is pursuing his Ph.D. at Northern Illinois University. A native of southern Wisconsin, he double-majored in biology and geology at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and graduated in 2003. The following year he began working toward his master’s at NIU. In 2005, he joined a small expedition to southeastern Montana to search for dinosaur fossils.

During that trip, Burpee’s famous Triceratops, Homer, was discovered by Rockford native Helmuth Redschlag. Further excavation of the skeleton in the summer of 2006 revealed multiple Triceratops specimens preserved at the site, making it the first documented occurrence of a Triceratops bonebed. This site became the focus of Mathews’ master’s thesis as he worked for Burpee as a fossil preparator for several years.

Upon completion of the Homer project, he accepted the position of chief fossil preparator and research assistant to Dr. William Hammer in the Geology Department at Augustana College, in Rock Island, Ill. While there, he was part of an expedition to search for dinosaurs in Antarctica.

In 2014, he returned to NIU to pursue his Ph.D. in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a Ph.D. student, he spent two field seasons excavating fossils in Cenozoic deposits in Madagascar. For his doctoral research, he’s studying the biostratigraphy of the Hell Creek Formation in Carter County, Mont.

As Burpee’s director of paleontology, Mathews steps into a role formerly occupied by his friend, Scott Williams, who’s now Paleontology Lab & Field Specialist at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont., a Smithsonian affiliate. Williams is engaged to former Burpee staffer Katie Tremaine, who is working toward her master’s at Museum of the Rockies.

Along with leading summer family digs, developing exhibits and planning PaleoFest, Mathews is training a cadre of volunteers to process a backlog of fossils.

“Many people don’t realize that we offer hands-on opportunities to work with fossils in an excellent, high-tech paleo research lab,” says Mathews. “You just don’t get that at a large-city museum, which is why we have volunteers driving out here from the Chicago suburbs every week.”

As director of education, Koch schedules camps, field trips, workshops and other teaching events throughout the year, working closely with Rockford Public School District 205.

“It’s really easy to be passionate about Burpee because it offers so many hands-on opportunities to learn about many kinds of science,” says Koch. “There’s nothing else like it in the Rockford area and I think it’s very important for students to have access to a natural history museum.”

She and Mathews are aware that new generations are meeting Jane and Homer for the first time.

Her department runs outreach programs for low-income students and also works closely with Kishwaukee, Lewis Lemon and McIntosh elementary schools through the 21st Century After School Program grant.

Koch holds a master’s in anthropology from NIU and has taught college-level anthropology classes at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago. Recently, she enjoyed working with retired Rockford College entomology professor John Walt to develop the museum’s new arthropods exhibit that will open on the third floor this fall.

About 85 percent of all known animals in the world are arthropods, including insects (such as beetles and bees), crustaceans (such as crabs and crayfish), arachnids (such as spiders and scorpions) and myriapods (such as centipedes). The exhibit will appeal to all ages.

“There are so many possibilities for growth and change at Burpee,” says Koch. “We’re looking forward to working more closely with the people in our own neighborhood but also to seeing how we can bring Burpee into local schools and assist with the existing science curriculum.”

Harezlak is understandably proud of the team he and the Burpee board of trustees have assembled. “As executive director, my goal, along with implementing sound financial practices, has been to ensure that Burpee Museum is an exciting place to visit, with interactive exhibits, programs and activities that engage the mind and inspire further inquiry and reflection about our natural world,” says Harezlak.

“The wonderful team we’ve assembled is doing just that.”

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