I like writing about people like Evelyn Dabritz as opposed to chasing pop media royalty who offer nothing but noise. Their insignificant steps don’t even leave footprints behind.
The first time I experienced Evelyn’s footprints is when they left me in the dust. I joined a “mature” women’s walking group. I struggled to keep pace. On my left a sun-kissed woman with muscular and shapely calves zoomed past me—uphill. “Can you believe that woman is 79-year-old,” my panting walking partner commented. Evelyn, almost 20 years my senior, was the walker who just dusted me.
When we piled into our carpool ride home, embarrassed at my inability to keep up on the walk, I commented that I’d obviously been at a desk for too many years. Evelyn, who knew from a previous conversation that I was taking anti-cancer medication explained, “It’s the drugs you are taking. They zap it all out of you. Don’t worry, it will come back soon enough.” Wow. I never considered the drug side effects, and how thoughtful of her to say something to soothe my embarrassment. But that’s Mrs. Dabritz, who celebrated her 80th year hiking about Thailand, volunteers as a docent for several nature-based organizations, leads nature hikes along the Pacific coast, and just published a third in a series of children’s nature books.
Officially, Evelyn retired from 24 years as an early education teacher in Whittier, Ca. As a veteran docent ambassador for a new coastal hiking trail, she recently told a local reporter that she’d rather interact with visitors because “It is a nice peaceful way to spend a Sunday afternoon, rather than in your rocking chair.” I’d bet that her rocking chair probably remains in like-new condition.
The coastal hike that I’m sorry I missed was in April when Evelyn and her husband of 60 years, David Dabritz, led a walk near Morro Bay, Ca, for the Nature Conservancy called “Let’s See What’s Hidden.” After studying her three children’s nature books, ” Bonnie Barnacle Finds a Home,” “ How the Innkeeper Worm Got a Full House,” and her newest release, the “Kelp Condo Crisis,” my curiosity surfaced. The picture books (each illustrated by Isobel Hoffman) explore the tiny and near-hidden elements of marine environments.
Her books are usually found in coastal state park nature stores and natural history museums. Schools use her books, two of which were the result of grants from the Morro Bay National Estuary Program for marine science education, which is timelier than ever before, considering the need for more marine scientists to find ways to help our oceans survive their current ecological assaults.
But Evelyn doesn’t wait around for grants and such. She and illustrator Hoffman, actively promote their books and are part of an August panel featuring children’s authors and illustrators who will discuss how they researched, wrote, developed and refined their children’s books. When she’s concluded that project, one will find her chatting with visiting children in the nearby natural history museum, explaining marine mammals to coastal visitors, or walking along trails fortified with information about the birds, mammals, reptiles, flora and fauna found and eager to share her knowledge.
When chatting with Evelyn I asked, “When you retired from teaching did you just get bored, or have you always felt the urge to learn and share?”
“I was born in California but grew up in a one-room house in Tacoma, Washington–without electricity or water. I loved watching snails, spiders and flying squirrels,” Evelyn explained. She went on to say that because” I was in constant touch with nature,” that it was natural for her to bring nature into her classrooms. “But I had to scrounge for nature books written for young children.”
Upon retirement Evelyn continued teaching as a volunteer docent for the Morro Bay Museum of Natural History. “We needed to get more publicity for the museum…David volunteered me to write stories about the museum…So I wrote “Bonnie Barnacle Gets a Home” for a freebie parents guide…People said I should publish the story but I was too busy heading up school groups and activities for the museum,” Evelyn recalled. Laughing she said, “Finally I joined the Society For Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, studied the courses offered, then sent out my manuscript—which was rejected every time. I said to myself, ‘I’m too old for this.’ Well, I’ve not done anything really risky all of my life, so I took some money and published the book myself.”
The book was well received and colleagues suggested that she apply for a grant, which she won, then went on to write “How the Innkeeper Worm Got a Full House.”
“I’m thinking of writing another children’s nature book about pelicans,” Evelyn added.
Now understanding the unconventional route to getting her books out, my next question was, “You are one fit lady. What’s the secret and what would you advise your “sisters in maturity” about getting or staying fit?”
“Fitness is something you commit yourself for life,” Evelyn answered. “Growing up in the Washington State woods gave me a strong constitution for starters. I had planned to study math in college, but a friend asked me why I didn’t take up physical education instead because I worked at summer camps and was always active. When I looked into what it entailed, I knew that was for me. So my first degree was physical education. Meanwhile, I had four children, and found a part-time job teaching physical conditioning for adult education. I always played tennis too.”
Today she works out at a fitness center four to five times a week, and plays tennis twice a week with a group. “Most of us are 80 or over and it is not pitty-patty tennis!” Evelyn exclaimed.
Popular culture media will likely overlook Evelyn’s imprints, but her marks remain indelible.