Claire Morgan is the first to sit on her newly dedicated bench outside the Schuylkill Center's front door, handcrafted from a local black cherry tree property by, from left, Shawn Riley, Steve Goin, and Sam Whittaker.

Claire Morgan is the first to sit on her newly dedicated bench outside the Schuylkill Center's front door, handcrafted from a local black cherry tree property by, from left, Shawn Riley, Steve Goin, and Sam Whittaker.

At the end of December, the Schuylkill Center says a bittersweet goodbye to Claire Morgan, who is retiring at the end of the month. One of our longest serving employees, Claire was hired in 2001 to work on community programming, and became a fixture here for the next 18 years, serving as an educator, volunteer coordinator, bookstore manager, community gardens coordinator, and more. “She just might have worn more hats than anyone in the Schuylkill Center’s storied history,” Executive Director Mike Weilbacher joked, “which is saying a lot.”

A 10th-generation Roxborough resident, Claire, who grew up in the Wissahickon section, has been living with her husband Ralph in Andorra for almost 40 years now, raising their two sons there. Education is in her blood, as she is the daughter of a schoolteacher who taught at Dobson, Shawmont, and Cook-Wissahickon schools. Claire herself has a Master’s in Elementary Education from Temple, and taught science in the Green Woods Charter School when it was based here at the center.

But she’s best known for her 12 years as our Volunteer Coordinator. In 2019, Claire helped 1,400 people spend more than 10,000 hours volunteering here. She has run the successful Toad Detour program for much of that time, manages the Senior Environment Corps where retirees engage in stream monitoring, sets up high school students with service projects, runs our butterfly counts, and so much more.

Because of the famous toads-- the ones who volunteers help cross Port Royal Avenue and Eva Street into the reservoir on rainy spring nights-- Claire’s retirement gifts were, pardon the oft-used (here anyway) pun , “toad-ally” themed.

Doug Wechsler, a Philadelphia resident who is an ornithologist, photographer and book author, wrote and provided the photos for a delightful children's book, “The Hidden Life of a Toad,” which features photos taken here at the Center, among other places (and the book is dedicated to Claire). He gave us permission to us one of his photos, which we enlarged and framed. The photos shows a mature toad-- warts and all-- sitting in the Schuylkill Center’s forest off the Ravine Loop. Our staff all wrote farewell notes and messages on the back of the framed toad.

In addition, the Land and Facilities crew created a new bench for visitors to sit upon when visiting the Center, now parked not far from the newly redesigned front entrance on a new patio space. The team handcrafted the bench from a black cherry tree that had fallen on the property, and carved silhouettes of toads hopping across the back of the bench.

“In honor of Claire Morgan,” says a plaque on the bench, “for 18 years of dedicated service teaching, inspiring volunteers, and so much more, from 2001 to 2019.”

Staff presented her with the framed photo and unveiled the bench at her retirement party held last week at the nature center. “I’m overwhelmed,” Claire said. “It’s beautiful, and the bench is even made from a local tree. It feels like it’s going to be a wonderful gathering spot for kids and families to come and enjoy nature. And it’s even got lovely toads embossed in it!”

Claire’s maiden name is Keely, a named deeply embedded in Roxborough history, as there is both a Keely Court and Keely Street the area. The Keelys ran “the lumber mill, the S. S. Keely lumber mill, at Leverington and Main Street in Manayunk,” she said. “The mill supplied lumber for a lot of the houses in Roxborough. They also sold coal at the mill, coal that came down the river from upstate, to heat the homes they built.” The lumber mill is now Caring for Cats, the cat clinic under the train tracks where Main Street turns onto Leverington. 

Her family is very active in St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, the beautiful and historic church on Ridge Avenue opposite the hospital. She’s the Rector's Warden there, so she recently chaired the search for the new rector, “the first woman in our history,” she told me as she beamed. And she chairs the parish life committee, which does many events like the Fourth of July parade, where groups from our community’s churches march down the Ridge with patriotic floats.

Reflecting on her 18 years at the Schuylkill Center, Claire says, “it’s been amazing and a joy, and I’ve learned so much in my time here. I enjoy working with high school kids, love working with the seniors, and everything in between. There was a college student here in October this year volunteering for Halloween Hikes, and she turned out to be a student I taught in first grade at Green Woods. That’s so great.”

Her devoted husband Ralph also retires this December, he after 25 years as a nurse anesthetist at Abington Hospital. So the two of them have decided “to see as many national parks as possible. And I’ll probably volunteer somewhere too,” she said, and laughed. She’ll also have more time to visit her granddaughter in Seattle, so travel will play a large role in the family's plan.

On behalf of all of us at the Schuylkill Center, thank you, Claire, for 18 great years.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Philadelphia, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.

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