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To say Dr. Oakleigh “Oak” Thorne II is “down to earth” is an understatement. Dr. Thorne a self-described Naturalist (“and musician”) grew up on an 80-acre estate on Long Island with streams, woods, and a lake. His father introduced him to fishing, his uncle started him collecting birds’ eggs, and bird artist John Henry Dick encouraged him by giving him ducks and pheasants to raise.

In 1954, Oak founded the non-profit Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder, Colorado teaching Ecological Principles in various formats to both adults and children. The Institute has reached over 150,000 children and adults by giving them a better understanding of their environment and its complex inter-relationships. In other words “we have connected them to nature.”

Oak credits several people who were great mentors for him. At Millbrook School in upstate New York, a school well known for its natural history programs, Dr. Thorne studied with the great biology teacher, Frank Trevor – a man with a passion for sharing his love of wildlife. Oak says Trevor taught him how to do bird banding at the age of 13 and make ecological films.

At Yale in the 1950s, “My mentor was Dr. Paul B. Sears, who had a broad, interdisciplinary approach to learning about the environment and conservation.” Dr. Sears retired to Taos, NM and lived to be 98 years old.

Oak is most proud of the many accomplishments of Thorne Ecological Institute - that includes the Thorne Natural Science School. The school provides hands-on field trips for young students. Thorne Natural Science School - along with the “Project BEAR (Building Environmental Awareness and Respect)” program - have an emphasis on reaching inner-city school children. ”This is the major thrust of all our programs today,” Dr. Thorne emphasizes. “Our programs are geared at raising the self-esteem of “at risk youth” by giving them environmental education opportunities and motivating them to learn even more about our world.” Dr. Thorne can’t stress enough the importance of education. He says: “Education is the key to all. It will help save the Earth and better the odds for survival of the human species.”

Also noteworthy is that Thorne Ecological Institute was one of the first environmental groups in the world to assist industries and public agencies in applying the Principles of Ecology to environmental problems. Dr. Thorne also became the first official Colorado representative for The Nature Conservancy when he moved west in 1954. He also collaborated with Boulder environmental activists to form “People’s League for Action Now” (PLAN-Boulder County), a citizen’s “watchdog” and planning group that helped Boulder pass the innovative Open Space sales tax in 1967, the first city in the USA to do so. The tax, which has been emulated by many other communities nationwide, is set up to preserve unique open space sites and prevent urban sprawl.

During the 1990’s Thorne Ecological Institute conducted some major national symposia and workshops, such as the “Symposia on Impacted Wildlife,” the “Watershed Workshops” in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Agency, and the “Institute of River Ecology” field workshops. During the 90’s and into the 21st Century, however, the Institute became more focused on environmental education for children and young people along the Front Range of Colorado.

It’s plain to see that raising awareness about the preservation of our environment is of utmost importance to Dr. Thorne. He strongly believes we are responsible for our planet. We have the power and an obligation to protect it.

Oakleigh Thorne II need not worry; there is no doubt that he has made an extraordinary contribution to our community – and to our planet.

(Article Resources: American Environmental Leaders, AASP Primary Records Program, Thorne Ecological Institute’s Dragonfly News, and Trevor Zoo at Millbrook School Newsletter.)

The Thorne Ecological Institute is proudly celebrating its 50th Anniversary with a special luncheon event-taking place on Thursday, January 27, 2005 at the Marriott Denver City Center. The event celebrates 50 years of service in environmental education. There will be award presentations and guest speakers honoring outstanding environmental leaders such as Jayni Chase, long-time environmentalist and founder of the Center for Environmental Education, and the wife of actor/comedian Chevy Chase. The National Audubon Society has also honored Jayni for her work.

Former Colorado Governor Dick Lamm will give the Keynote Address, Adele Arakawa of Channel 9 will Emcee, and Maggie Fox, Regional Director of the Sierra Club and wife of Congressman Mark Udall, will present the Awards.

Dr. Thorne will give brief remarks - in addition to several youth who have been served by this very successful educational program.

There is no charge to attend this fundraising event, but a formal invitation is required. Those interested in attending the luncheon should contact Jessica Feld at 303-499-3647 or email or they can register through

What are some of the different courses you personally teach or have taught?

I still teach Bird Banding to teenagers through the Institute and have taught Ecological Principles to college students at the University of Colorado. I also teach Nature Photography at New Vista High School in Boulder.

What are some of your other favorite activities or hobbies?

Music. I founded “The CU Buffoons” an undergraduate men’s a cappella singing group, now in its 43rd year, and I was the Musical Director in 1953-54 for the “Yale Whiffenpoofs,” a famous a cappella men’s singing group founded in 1909. I’m now a Second Tenor in the a cappella men’s singing group, the “New Wizard Oil Combination” (“Wizards”) in Boulder and Denver. I also play jazz piano and do vocal arrangements.

Can you tell us about a fond childhood memory?

When I was 10-years-old, my dad purchased for me a stuffed Passenger Pigeon, - now an extinct species, that I still treasure today.

Besides family, what’s especially important in your life?

Educating people about ecology. Also, helping people know how much of a difference they can make. Everyone is unique and valuable.

What do you consider your proudest or most significant achievement?

The founding of Thorne Ecological Institute. Although I’m only one cog in the wheel, I know it takes a whole organization working together, caring and believing in each other. It’s a wonderful group we have now, hard working – and underpaid!

What do you like most about living in Boulder?

People are concerned about the environment. Thorne Ecological Institute and the City of Boulder Open Space Department worked out a unique, cooperative plan with the Boulder Valley School District to preserve the Sombrero Marsh near Boulder and create an ecological instruction program there. I do, however, miss the diversity that we used to see in Boulder.

What is the best advice your Mom and Dad gave you?

Be generous and caring. My parents were the most caring people I know.

What is a favorite motto or quote?

“Your Life is Your Career” and “Live in the now, learn from the past, plan for the future.”

What is of greatest concern to you?

The lack of what some government administrations do for environmental causes. Business leaders need to understand the relationship between Ecology and Economics. If you violate the Principles of Ecology that are operating in the world, you will end up with an economic disaster in the long run. H.G. Wells was right: “Civilization is a race between catastrophe and education.” Let’s hope education wins!

What is your most treasured possession?

My Steinway Concert Grand Piano that my Dad bought when we lived in Long Island, NY in 1929. Jerome Kern, the composer, came to dinner at our house when I was 1-year-old and played all the music from Show Boat. I was asleep in my crib upstairs!

What is something one might not know about you?

My grandfather was Gustav Kobbe. His famous Kobbe’s Opera Book is still being published today by Putnam’s in New York and London.

What do you hope to pass on to future generations?

Thorne Ecological Institute. That’s why I feel it’s so important that we raise $10 million dollars over the next five years so that we have about $500,000 each year in our budget. That, plus any grants, will triple the effectiveness we have right now, so that we can “outreach” our knowledge of connecting kids with nature out of the Rocky Mountain Region, to the whole country - and maybe even to the world!

What role are you looking forward to playing in the future?

To continue being a mentor and teacher to young people – that is my purpose in life. Nothing is more exciting for a little kid than to hold a banded bird, like a swallow, that might migrate all the way to Argentina. Mentoring is such an important role for seniors like me.