Oswegoan hailed as “true Renaissance man”
Richard Young honored for environmental work in Kane, Kendall counties
Tony Scott

The name Richard Young is probably not a familiar one to many Kendall County residents.

Perhaps motorists who drive along Ill. Route 71 near Yorkville have seen or visited the Richard Young Forest Preserve, or have traveled to Kane County and its Dick Young Forest Preserve.

But Young, an 81-year-old Oswego resident, has more than a few fans among Kendall County environmental advocates.

For decades, Young has worked to help clean up the Fox River, which was at one point an industrial dumping ground of sorts for some early factories. Young has also worked for both Kane and Kendall counties as a building and zoning, and highway department official; has authored a number of books, including a field guide for the Fox Valley region and joined the U.S. Marines during World War II, even serving in the famous battle of Iwo Jima.

After returning from the war, Young built a stone house with a “green roof” on Route 34 in Oswego that may still be ahead of its time.

After a life as busy as Young’s, one would probably have some interesting stories to tell.

With that in mind, the Fox River Ecosystem Partnership hosted a luncheon in honor of Young Dec. 14 at Jason’s Steakhouse in Montgomery, during which the group recorded on video some of Young’s stories about how he first became an advocate for the Fox River and Kendall County.

Jason Pettit, director of the Kendall County Forest Preserve District, introduced Young, describing him as “a true Renaissance man,” and calling his field guide “poetic.”

“He’s been a tireless adviser and advocate up and down the Fox River for decades and decades,” Pettit said.

Young frequently peppered his presentation with humor, and joked mildly about his age. He told a story of losing a billfold in the morning while he was getting ready to go to a meeting. He had to leave for the meeting without his billfold, and when he got back home, a surprise was waiting for him.

"I thought I'd get a bite to eat, and I opened the refrigerator door, and there was my billfold, on a saucer,” he told the crowd. “No good mind would think of doing that."

Young told the audience of FREP members and local officials that he grew up along the Fox River and used it as a source of income, collecting clams in the river when he was a boy.

"The first $4 I ever earned was when we picked the clams up out of the river,” he said. “I think I was nine years old then. The clammers that were going around with their boats would reach down and pick up the clams, but I could walk around barefoot, feeling with my feet. We sold them to the button factory down in Ottawa."

After his discharge from the Marines, Young studied biology and psychology at North Central College in Naperville, finishing his studies in psychology at Loyola University in Chicago.

“And I got better grades in psychology than I did in biology,” he said.

Young and his late wife had four children, he said. To help support his family while he furthered his education, Young said he worked construction, helping to build the first Oswego Fire Protection District station and the first post-World War II bank building in Oswego, as well as the Yorkville National Bank building in Yorkville.

Young said during his stint as a construction worker, he was asked by Kendall County officials to help draft the county’s first building code.

Young said he also served as a Boy Scout leader, and it was during an outing with a group of young scouts when Young experienced the poor quality of the river firsthand. Young said one of the scouts was exploring one of the river’s tributaries in Yorkville when he got an unpleasant surprise.

"I saw him pick up a stick, and he reached down in the creek and picked up a condom, and shook it off and started to blow it up,” he said. “So I said, this has got to come to an end."

He brought his concerns to the chairman of the Kendall County Board’s Planning, Building and Zoning Committee at the time, and was told about a job opening as the county’s planning, building and zoning director.

“I said I’ll take that job if you give me a free hand to clean up the streams,” he said. “And they said, well, be our guest.”

Young said he helped draft a zoning ordinance making it illegal to dump untreated sewage into Kendall County’s streams.

“I remember we got 47 sewers out of Waubonsie Creek,” he recalled.

However, one of the factories on the creek would not cooperate with the law, and Young said he had to stand up to the factory’s owner.

"I told him, you're going to have to put in a regulation septic system here,” he recalled. “(He said) 'Oh, I'm not going to do that, I'm not going to spend money on that, that's not necessary because the creek's going to clean itself by the time it travels a quarter of a mile.' I said, no it will not."

Young said he complained about the uncooperative factory owner to the state’s attorney, and after a threat to put the owner in jail, he complied.

"And we didn't have to put him in jail," Young said.

Kay Hatcher, the county’s Forest Preserve District Board president, said Young’s “commitment to our environment extends far beyond this county and this generation.”

Hatcher said Young has preached conservation design for subdivisions and other development for years, before the onslaught of growth hit the county.

“He was decades ahead of most of us in understanding how easily the balance of nature is affected by growth,” she said.

Becky Hoag, FREP spokesman, said the group will use the audio and video from the luncheon for “historical purposes,” and hopes to capture more stories from Young’s “unique life.”

“He’s our guru,” she said.