When Bruce Ause went to Thursday’s Noontime Kiwanis meeting, he thought he was there to help talk about the early years of the Environmental Learning Center. Instead, he was honored for his work with the ELC and other community involvement when he was named the 2013 Red Wing Neighbor of the Year.
He was chosen from a handful of nominees and stood out for getting the ELC off the ground, work at the state Capitol and locally for Red Wing PFLAG, and his “quiet strength” and fight for truth, Kiwanis members said.
Those who spoke about Ause’s impact on the Red Wing area included Bill Sweasy, who discussed the Shoe’s involvement in establishing and continuing to fund the ELC; Jane Donkers, mother of some of the first ELC participants; Matt Valliant, a former participant; Jason Jech, current executive director of the ELC; Kathy Silverthorn of the Visitors and Convention Bureau, who talked about starting Eagle Watch; Michelle Leise, who talked about activities including PFLAG; and Tim Schlagenhaft of the Audubon Society.
“Bruce built the ELC,” Sweasy said. “He took an idea and created what we know now as the ELC.”
The ELC started in 1970, according to its website. The program teaches local students ages 8 to 18 about the local environment, outdoor recreation and activities and specialized programming. There are also options to travel outside the area.
Jech said Ause was critical to getting the ELC started.
“He was the right person at the right time, and it made all the difference,” Jech said.
“He sought to make a difference one kid at a time.”
Jech, Donkers and Valliant reminisced about pranks, learning experiences and fond memories of the ELC and said the kids that came through the program have great respect for Ause.
“I think students would walk to the top of Mount Everest for Bruce,” Jech said.
Schlagenhaft said Ause also has been instrumental in re-establishing Audubon activities in the Red Wing area and helping a program similar to the ELC get started in Lake City.
In his work with PFLAG, Ause has been “fighting for equality when it’s not very popular,” Leise said.
“He’s one of the few people who can change people’s minds,” she said. “By changing minds, you can change a community.”
Ause said his work with PFLAG has been aimed at curbing discrimination, which he said many people can’t fully understand until they’ve experienced it.
“I am most appreciative of the fact that Minnesota is leading the country in respect and dignity for those that are different,” he said.
Ause said the community support for the ELC has been key to the program’s success, and the students have been great.
“You can’t fail when you have that kind of clientele to work with,” he said.
Ause said looking back at past recipients of the Neighbor of the Year award, he was humbled to be included in the group.
He said he was honored and surprised by the award. “I honestly had no idea this was in store.”