Lifetime residents of Rockford, Rich and Mary Anne Toppe began coming to Severson Dells not long after it was donated by the Seversons and opened as a forest preserve in 1976. They developed a deeper connection when Mary Anne began taking her second-grade students on field trips and later chaperoned her own daughter Mollie on field trips. Since then, they have become integral and beloved members of the Severson Dells family. Director Ann Wasser says of the pair, “Rich and Mary Anne have been and continue to be so generous in so many ways to Severson Dells and the Rockford community.” In fact, when invited to Severson for this interview, Rich and Mary Anne brought pizza and ice cream for the whole staff and we enjoyed a lunch filled with laughter and memories.
Rich and Mary Anne expressed, “Severson Dells has had a big impact on our family.” Both their daughter, Mollie, and son, Sam, were involved with programming throughout their childhood. Through their experiences, they both developed a greater respect and love for nature. Sam and Mollie were in camps, went on canoe trips, and were part of the Coyote Clan, an adventure group for youth facilitated by the legendary Don Miller. Sam and Mollie had a deep admiration for the staff and made life-long memories. Sam recalls, “My strongest memory of Severson Dells is going to the luminaries every winter, drinking hot chocolate and walking through the woods surrounded by little white lights. I remember going to summer camps every summer, learning to canoe, build fires, use a compass, or just sloshing through the creek. I remember lots of musical performances and nature presentations in the big room. And I remember the passionate people who worked there, especially Richard, Kathy, and Don.” Time spent at Severson Dells helped Mollie define her path in life. Mary Anne and Rich explained, “Mollie went on in college to study environmental sciences and education. We see the impactful value that Severson Dells brings to our region. They are crucial in helping facilitate the connections between people and nature. We are privileged to have a wonderful forest preserve and park system. The Severson staff and programs focus attention on those valuable parks and preserves.”
Mary Anne shared her time and talent as a board member for Severson Dells in the early 2000’s. Rich helped when a parent chaperone was needed and began a friendship with the staff at that time, Don, Kathy, and Richard. Rich especially enjoyed the canoe activities when Don began the current canoe program (Monday night Canoe Convoys and Blazing Saddles Canoe Camp). After taking ACA (American Canoe Association) training, Rich became a regular volunteer canoe instructor and rarely misses an opportunity to get out on the water and teach some effective paddle strokes and throw out some of the best - and hilariously worst - jokes.
Rich and Mary Anne are both natural teachers. Mary Anne taught for ten years at Keith School and moved onto being a fitness instructor at the YMCA. Rich worked as a social worker at Rosecrance and then taught for 34 years in the Rockford Public Schools.
Since retirement in 2011, Rich and Mary Anne are enjoying engaging in the outdoor activities they have always loved: cycling, hiking, canoeing, and x-country skiing. These activities get them out often into the local parks and preserves. As a canoe volunteer, Rich feels privileged to help novices learn about local rivers. Rich said, “On our Monday night floats, many guests are surprised to discover the beauty of the land along our rivers. They always express wonder that these wilderness-like forests, prairies, and waters are just a few miles from home.” Our Naturalist/Educator Andrea Wallace has experienced many hours on the rivers with Rich as a camper and intern. She said of Rich, “He captures and embodies the magic we should all find in the outdoors!”
Rich and Mary Anne enjoy traveling as well; as Rich explained, “It’s fun to travel occasionally, but returning home is often the best part of the trip!” Rich and Mary Anne clearly have developed a deep sense of place at Severson Dells. Their son-in-law, John, chose a spot at Severson Dells with twin oaks to propose to their daughter because he knew how important it was to Mollie. Now it is an important place to Rich and Mary Anne. They also love sitting at the windows when the birds are active at the feeders. “It is a Muir moment! How can anyone watch the variety of birds and not feel connected to the natural world?!” Rich exclaimed. In fact, it was John Muir who once wrote, “Into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” It will make sense, then, to anyone who knows Rich that he has spent a great deal of time in the forests at Severson Dells!
Rich and Mary Anne are rare gems. All of us at Severson Dells feel blessed that they share their spirit of giving and adventure with us. Join us for the Monday night Canoe Convoys to get patient and entertaining canoe instruction from Rich. You’ll also spot Rich and Mary Anne supporting one of our many events - from Wildflower Walkabouts to travelogues to our fundraisers. Strike up a conversation with them and get rewarded with warmth, humor and incredible stories!