Jack A. Wennerstrom, RIP

Author, poet, naturalist and ardent fan of Soldiers Delight

Jack Wennerstrom on Moraine Lake in the Canadian Rockies. Photo by Donna Shoemaker
by Frederick N. Rassmussen, Baltimore Sun -- Jack A. Wennerstrom, a Randallstown author, poet and naturalist who wrote about Soldiers Delight and the Upper Potomac River and was also a contributing editor to Bird Watcher’s Digest, died Dec. 30 at Sinai Hospital from complications of a massive stroke. He was 71.

“Jack was very analytical and he liked having a plan. He was pleasant to work with, and we worked well together," said Frank A. Wisniewski, a photographer who worked with Mr. Wennerstrom on his book, “Soldiers Delight Journal Revisited: A Photographic Ramble."

”He had a general vision of what he wanted to convey. It just wasn’t about cold facts. He liked to romance the details. It was his anchor. He let himself dream because he was humbled by these things," Frank said. “This is a key to his personality. He was a very humble guy who loved learning. He was studious. He was a sponge. He had a wonderful way of rubbing off on people.”

MacDonald “Mac” Plant, an attorney, botanist and birder, is an old friend. “Jack was a fabulous person in so many respects. He was a polymath,” said Mr. Plant, a member of the Worthley Botany Club. “I knew him mostly through our interest in the natural world. He was an exceedingly thoughtful, wise and a very kind person. He tended not to put himself forward.”

Jack Alan Wennerstrom, son of Jack Allen Wennerstrom, A.C. Nielsen Co. CFO, and his former wife, Lorene Wennerstrom, a homemaker, was born and raised in Skokie, Illinois. He was the stepson of Nancy Wennerstrom, also a homemaker. After graduating from Deerfield High School in Deerfield, Illinois, in 1966, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1970 from Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Illinois.

Mr. Wennerstrom held a variety of jobs, some of which included working as a high school English teacher at Barrington High School in Barrington, Illinois, assistant bookstore manager at Lake Forest College, newspaper reporter for the Pioneer Press in Highland Park, Illinois, and textbook coordinator for Follett Book Corp. in Evanston.

He met his future wife, Donna Shoemaker, in the early 1970s at a party in Pittsburgh and married her in 1977 in Dolgellau, Wales. In 1976, he moved to Alexandria, Virginia, and worked as the inter-library loan coordinator for Hogan & Hartson, a Washington law firm.

He worked as an instructor at Harford Community College and an adjunct professor at Loyola University Maryland, and also taught classes at the Johns Hopkins University, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Towson University and Roland Park Country School, but found his true calling as a writer, naturalist and lecturer.

From 2002 to 2006, Mr. Wennerstrom was president of BioTrek Naturalists Inc., a nonprofit organization that offers “advanced natural history experiences for amateur naturalists’ throughout Maryland,” according to a 2003 Sun article.

Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area, a 2,000-acre serpentine grasslands near Owings Mills — the largest serpentine grassland and oak savanna ecosystem in the United States, according to the state Department of Natural Resources — became a focus for Mr. Wennerstrom, who served as its staff naturalist for a year and was president of the board of directors of Soldiers Delight Conservation Inc., a citizens support group.

“He was a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about the flora and fauna of our unique ecosystem and its rare and endangered species,” Lynell Tobler, the group’s vice president, wrote in an email. “Our group is devastated to lose such a good friend and fan of our treasured and fragile wild land.”

His fascination with Soldiers Delight led to the publication of his book “Soldiers Delight Journal: Exploring a Globally Rare Ecosystem,” published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1995.

“I became fascinated by the cryptic beauty of it,” he explained in a 2000 interview with The Washington Post. “You have to notice the small things to understand it.”

“There is a luster and resonance in wilderness that is beyond form, beyond function,” he wrote in the book. “Each time one goes afield it is revealed that much more and stored up in the soul. It mostly defies translation, so few even bother to try. For a long time I didn’t try either. But, if you’re a writer, the need to attempt such translations gets under your skin. I finally got a notebook and jotted a few things down.”

Wrote noted American naturalist, ornithologist, illustrator and teacher Roger Tory Peterson in the foreword to Mr. Wennerstrom’s book: “The author, in his journal year, does not pursue just the rare or exotic; he deliberately seeks out the everyday in nature, the abundant aliens as well as the familiar natives — the pheasants and chickadees, fungi and chicories, that are the stuff of everyone’s adventures in the woods and fields not far from home, wherever they live.”

Mr. Wennerstrom told The Sun in a 2003 interview: “By the midpoint of my journal year, I began to feel stifled when more than a few days passed between visits. ... I formed the kind of blissful addiction to observant wandering that Thoreau knew so well.”

In 2016, Mr. Wennerstrom and Mr. Wisniewski collaborated on “Soldiers Delight Journal Revisited: A Photographic Ramble,” a self-published book.

Frank Wisniewski, left, and Jack Wennerstrom at the launch party for their new book, Soldiers Delight Journal Revisited: A Photographic Ramble, in 2016

“We did a lot of bushwhacking. Jack was 6 feet 4 and much taller than me, and to every one of his strides I had to take two," Mr. Wisniewski recalled with a laugh. “I enjoyed being out there, but it was rough keeping up with him — and this was a guy who was in his late 60s.”

As the two friends wandered through Soldiers Delight, they reveled in its flora, fauna and mysteries. “He was truly in his element, and you could tell he was aware, listening and observing,” Mr. Wisniewski said. Said Mr. Plant: “When you joined him on a walk through Soldiers Delight, you realized how exceptional his knowledge and sensibility to the natural world was.”

Mr. Wennerstrom was also the author of “Leaning Sycamores: Natural Worlds of the Upper Potomac,” published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. “An essential pleasure in the natural world is this grounding in design and detail. It doesn’t do to invent too much, for nature has invented it for you, in far more interesting ways,” he wrote in the book. “Scrutinize the structure of a beaver or bass and you need not fool with fiction.” For years, in addition to his own work, he was a contributing editor to Bird Watcher’s Digest.

An adept writer who could work in other genres, Mr. Wennerstrom wrote three published novels, “Black Coffee,” “Home Ground” and “Pheasant Alley.” He also wrote poetry, “Afterwords” and at his death unpublished works included four travel diaries and memoirs and two novels.

Since 1986, Mr. Wennerstrom and his wife lived on Samost Road in Randallstown. From their ranch home they enjoyed the passing wildlife and nearby woods.

As he grew older, he was concerned about the “future of his species and his planet,” wrote his wife, who retired in 2008 from the Johns Hopkins University, where she was the editor of the Alumni Magazine Consortium.

“Your ash may rise and fuse with light, with ether and with earth, but ‘you’ will not be there, nor, some day, will our species,” Mr. Wennerstrom wrote in “Light and Shadow,” a three-volume unpublished memoir-autobiography. “Accept that you are star-dust and to star-dust will return.”

Plans for a memorial gathering this spring at Soldiers Delight are incomplete. In addition to his wife of 42 years, he is survived by an aunt and two nephews.

Note from SDCI: Donna Shoemaker, Jack's wife, has expressed the desire that contributions in memory of her husband may be made to Soldiers Delight Conservation, Inc. (SDCI) or to a charity of your choice.

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