More than a half-century ago, Bert Szabo was among a group of people gathered in a room of the then-headquarters of what would become Summit Metro Parks to discuss how to get people out on the trails and in the parks.
The idea that would become the annual Fall Hiking Spree was the vision of then-director Arthur Wilcox, but Szabo helped get it started in 1964.
As everyone wondered when and how the spree could start, Szabo remembered he had a nature walk coming up that Sunday and suggested they could bill that as the spree’s official start.
"People followed me into every park, and it kept getting longer and longer," Szabo said.
The Fall Hiking Spree continues today — and Szabo participated in the spree for more than 50 consecutive careers, only stopping a few years ago.
After Szabo’s 34-year career with the park district — including his role as its first interpretive naturalist — and years more as a volunteer, Sand Run Parkway is temporarily being renamed "Bert Szabo Parkway" for the month of December, and Dec. 4 — his 99th birthday — was named "Bert Szabo Day."
"I was surprised to hear about it, of course. And I thought, what’s all the fuss about?" he said. "You don’t expect that stuff, you know, and I appreciate it."
A Lorain native who’s lived in the same Munroe Falls apartment since the 1970s, Szabo graduated from Lorain’s St. Mary’s Academy — which is now defunct — in 1939.
Szabo’s always had a passion for nature and the outdoors. His relatives were farmers, and a neighbor who was a teacher taught him about different flowers and birds as he was growing up.
"It’s in my blood, the nature part of it," he said.
After high school, Szabo earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and a master’s degree in botany, both from Ohio University. He also served in the U.S. Army during World War II, from 1942 to 1946, as a typist in Europe.
Szabo spent several years managing Evamere, the dairy farm at Western Reserve Academy, before starting his career with what was then known as the Akron Metropolitan Park District in 1957. He’s one year older than the park district, which was established Dec. 31, 1921.
He worked in Sand Run Metro Park and served as the area manager for Goodyear Heights Metro Park before being appointed as the first chief naturalist in 1963.
"You had to be a jack of all trades" as a naturalist, he said.
Along with helping start the Fall Hiking Spree, regularly leading nature walks and speaking to schools and other local groups, Szabo also designed exhibits at the F.A. Seiberling Nature Realm Visitors Center, created the unique portal sign at Deep Lock Quarry Metro Park and was an early contributor to Green Islands newsletter — he said the name referenced the "little patches of parks" that were "scattered around" — now a magazine with a circulation of more than 14,000.
His favorite parks are Virginia Kendall, now part of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, "for variety" and Deep Lock Quarry and Firestone Metro Parks "for history."
A birdwatcher, Szabo also participated in the Greater Akron Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Counts for many years.
"Bert is in a league of his own when it comes to his contributions to Summit Metro Parks, both as an employee and as a volunteer," Summit Metro Parks Executive Director Lisa King said. "The park district recognizes daily the enormous benefit of his influence, and Bert Szabo Day is a way to publicly honor his dedication to the parks and nature education."
Szabo retired in 1991, but he never really left the park district. Nearly 30 years later and on the cusp of celebrating a century of life, Szabo still volunteers with the park district. He’s contributed more than 7,000 service hours to date, including at concerts and the Fall Hiking Spree he helped start so many years ago.
Plus, he has a wealth of valuable knowledge about the park district’s early history.
"I never left," he said of his retirement and subsequent volunteering. "Everybody thought I [still] worked there."
Along with the impression he’s left on the parks and natural world of Summit County and mentoring naturalists and birdwatchers "from California all the way across to Maine," Szabo’s inspired several of his family members to find careers in the natural field.
One son, Mark Szabo, is retired after spending 33 years with the Huron-Clinton Metroparks in Michigan. He recalled his father teaching him the names of birds and flowers as he was growing up. He also said they’d often take walks and hikes as a family.
"I’m proud of him," said Mark Szabo, 61, who lives in Michigan. "It’s just hard to believe he’s 99."
Another son, John Szabo, chaired the geology department at the University of Akron for many years. One grandson, Howard Aprill, is a naturalist for Milwaukee County Parks in Wisconsin. A second grandson, Shawn Szabo, is a wildlife tech in Idaho.
"It’s in the genes," Bert Szabo said.
Contact reporter Emily Mills at 330-996-3334, email@example.com and @EmilyMills818.
Bert Szabo’s awards and distinctions
• Induction into the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Hall of Fame (2007), Ohio Senior Citizens Hall of Fame (2018), Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame (2019) and Summit Metro Parks Volunteer Hall of Fame.
• The National Audubon Society Great Egret Award, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Conservation Achievement Award and the National Association of Interpretation (NAI) President’s Award.
• Twice named NAI’s Outstanding Senior/Retired Interpreter.
• Leadership roles in many nature-based organizations, including NAI, the Association for Interpretive Naturalists, Greater Akron Audubon Society, Friends of Metro Parks and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Kirtlandia Society.
• Appointed multiple times to the Governor’s Natural Areas Council.