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Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A Conversation with Bill and Mary Hopple

By Anita Guy Burgess

Bill Hopple recently retired as the executive director of the Cincinnati Nature Center (CNC) after serving the organization for 23 years - the longest serving director of the center. During his tenure, the CNC experienced explosive growth in membership, income, the number of employees and programs designed to enrich the lives of residents by inspiring a passion for nature.

Hyde Park Living spoke with Bill and his wife, Mary, on their beautiful terrace just before they left town on their first retirement adventure. Bill had just been honored by the CNC for his service and achievements at the Back to Nature Gala.

The gala successfully raised over $135,000 to establish the William Hopple III Fund created by the CNC board and staff. Income from the fund will be used to support outdoor education programs, especially those for children. In addition, Bill was presented with a statue of his favorite bird, a red-headed woodpecker, carved by Gary Denzler. Bill was delighted by the gift.

“A staff member asked me to name my favorite bird. I thought they might use it as a part of the theme for the Gala.  I was pleasantly surprised to receive such a beautiful gift.”
Bill was delighted to receive this statue of a red-headed woodpecker carved by Gary Denzler as a retirement gift.

Bill’s roots in Hyde Park run deep. He spent 50 of his 66 years residing in three homes in the area. He was born on Paxton Avenue, moved to Herschel View and now lives on Traskwood Drive. He and Mary have no plans to leave - instead they look forward to making Hyde Park their home base for their retirement adventures.

Bill and his siblings attended Cincinnati Country Day (CCD), where his father served as head of the lower school and then director of development. Bill met Mary, a college tennis player, at a fraternity party during their years at Cornell University in upstate New York. “Let’s just leave it at that!” said Mary with a smile.

Mary grew up outside Buffalo, New York. They married right out of college. Their first stop was Chicago, where Bill taught middle school science and Mary worked as assistant buyer for Marshall Fields in the stationery department.

“At some point we had to decide where to settle down. We wanted to be near family,” recalled Bill. “Mary said, ‘Not Buffalo.’ The University of Cincinnati had made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.” So they moved to Cincinnati, where Bill pursued a master’s of science in biology and Mary worked at Closson’s.

After Bill graduated, he began teaching AP Biology, Biology and Life Sciences at CDC. In 1987 when his father retired, Bill was hired to succeed him as director of development. After 10 years in that position, Bill became restless and began to search for other opportunities.

“We decided we didn’t want to leave Cincinnati. I actually worked with a recruiter who asked me, ‘When have you been the happiest?’ My answer was, ‘When I am in the outdoors.’ It was then that I realized I needed to reconnect with nature and outdoors.”

“Six months later, my predecessor at the Cincinnati Nature Center announced his retirement, and it turned out I was a good fit for the job with my background in natural science, development work and deep roots in the community. I joined Cincinnati Nature Center in January of 1996 as executive director.”

Hyde Park Living wanted to know how a young man who grew up in Hyde Park developed such a great love for the outdoors. Bill explained, “In 1957 my parents bought a house on Herschel View that backed up to the woods at the Cincinnati Observatory. Growing up I had 6 to 8 acres of woods to play in and explore.”

Bill and his siblings had the benefit of seeing a good bit of their father during their days at CCD and even had him as a teacher at some point. “We were fortunate that we were able to spend summers during high school at an overnight camp in North Carolina where we experienced canoeing, rock climbing and more.”

In college, his interest in the outdoors led him to take a year off to become an instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School. “I’ve always wanted to climb Mt Denali,” said Bill. It’s something he would finally get the opportunity to do during his time at the CNC.

According to Bill, the CNC is the largest member-supported nature center in the country. It was recently named one of Ohio’s best-kept secrets by the website OnlyinYourState. Its mission is to enrich lives by inspiring a passion for nature through experience, education and stewardship - Bill emphasized several times, “especially for children.”

The CNC is located on 1800 acres on two properties, Rowe Woods and Long Branch Farm. Bill explained, “Our award-winning trails, in two locations, wind through the region’s natural habitats of Eastern deciduous forest, fields, streams and ponds. Rowe Woods, located in Milford, spans more than 1,000 acres (including 65 acres of old growth forest) and offers 16 miles of hiking trails. Long Branch Farm & Trails, located in Goshen, Ohio, contains nearly 800 acres of forest and farmland with four miles of hiking trails accessible to members only.”

During Bill’s tenure, the CNC experienced explosive growth. Membership more than doubled to 13,000 families. The number of employees also increased from 20 in 1996 to nearly 100 full and part time staff members, depending upon the season.

Bill has been credited with leading several successful capital campaigns over the years to fund improvements, expansions and new programs. He also directed and oversaw changes resulting from four different strategic plans which identified better ways to serve the CNC’s mission. One change involved more direct outreach to the community.

In 2011, the center added the Nature Playscape for children to experience nature in a way that keeps them safe. It provides one- and-a-half fenced in acres for  free play in the outdoors.

“We found that children were not experiencing the outdoors like I did because of the fear of strangers. At the Marge & Charles Schott Nature Playscape at Rowe Woods, children can walk the trails, climb and explore the creek with or without their parents.” It has been a huge success, with between 30,000 and 40,000 visits per year since it opened.
Bill was honored as A Man for All Seasons at the Back to Nature Gala. Bill and Mary celebrated his retirement after 23 years of service to the Cincinnati Nature Center with (from left) Heather Wargnier, Casey, Mary, Bill and Jess Hopple.

In 2012, the center opened a Nature Preschool for three to five year olds. The half day program features a nature-based curriculum. “Regardless of the weather, children play outdoors for two out of the three hours,” said Bill. “We opened with an enrollment of 60 children, and it has been very well received. In fact, we’ve been asked to expand to include a kindergarten program.”

“Most recently we asked ourselves, ’How can we have an even bigger impact?’ In March of 2017, we opened the Center for Conservation at CNC. We raised $2.5 million dollars to renovate a 1920s-era farm house structure on the property. It will house laboratories and classes. We are partnering with Cardinal Land Conservancy to help preserve farmland and green space in seven Greater Cincinnati counties.”

“We also reach out beyond the borders of the center to garden clubs and individuals about using native plants. In June the center took our Native Plant Garden on tour to 10 locations on the eastside of Cincinnati to promote the advantage of using native species in gardens. These include attracting insects, attracting native birds, creating a diverse ecosystems, requiring  less maintenance and better adapting to the current climate and future changes.”

One of Bill’s favorite stories was when someone asked him where he worked and then asked, “Is that a full time job?!” Yes, it’s a full time job – one that kept him close to nature, but unfortunately in the office most of the time. “Kind of ironic isn’t it!” said Bill with a laugh. But Bill found opportunities to seek out and enjoy the outdoors during his time there.

In 2003, on the eve of his 50th birthday, Bill decided he wanted to do something physical - and the time was finally right to train and climb Mt. Denali in Alaska. Mary agreed and remembers the stipulation, “as long as you don’t kill yourself!”

He trained by climbing the seven summits of Cincinnati. The CNC gave him time off, and in June of 2006 he set off to make the climb. It was arranged ahead of time that Bill would call Mary when he summited the peak.

He successfully reached the peak on July 4, 2006. But when he called Mary to tell her the good news, there was no answer! Mary explains, “I was having dinner on the porch at the Cincinnati Country Club with friends, and back then you were not supposed to answer your phone on the porch. So can you believe it? I missed his call from the peak!”

Bill also created and led the Full Moon Walks, evening hikes designed for people to enjoy the full moon and the night sky. “In 22 years, I led over 250 tours and only cancelled five times because of weather,” recalled Bill. Full Moon Walks at the CNC will continue under leadership from the staff.

Asked about his most memorable accomplishment, Bill quickly mentioned the creation of the Nature Playscape because it is so critical to the mission of educating and allowing children to experience nature. What means the most to him personally was an unsolicited comment from a staff member as he was nearing retirement. Out of the blue, the staff member commented, “Bill, I applaud you because you have been so fair and even tempered in your dealings with everyone all these years.”

What does retirement look like for the Hopples? Once again, there was no hesitation to name items on their bucket list. Bill wants to become more physically active. He plans to take some biking trips with their son, complete his quest to hike to the highest peak in each state and play more golf or, as Bill put it with a chuckle, “I’d like to reduce the average cost of a golf outing at Cincinnati Country Club!”

He plans to get some use out of his black and white darkroom in the basement and find time to serve as President of Board of Cardinal Land Conservancy, Mary sold her business, M. Hopple & Company, in 2014 - so she is eager to begin their joint retirement. She mentioned touring the National Parks, entertaining more in their newly remodeled kitchen, playing pickle ball with Bill and spending more time at the Hopple cottage on Lake Chautauqua in western New York.

Both look forward to spending more time with children and grandchildren. Bailey, their eldest daughter, resides in Bethesda, Maryland with her husband and their two young children. Their middle daughter, Jess, works as a production chemist at Sheppard Chemical in Cincinnati; and their son, Casey, works as a mechanical engineer in engine design at GE Aviation in Cincinnati.

Hyde Park Living wishes the Hopples happy trails and many happy returns to friends and family in Hyde Park and Cincinnati!

For more information about the Cincinnati Nature Center, please visit:

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