BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — When Art Weber joined Metroparks Toledo in 1972, he was fresh out of college but had experience in writing and photography.
The Toledo Metropolitan Park District, as it was known at the time, had just passed its first levy to meet the needs of a growing community. As the district’s first public information officer, Art’s job was to promote and inform the public about the rich offerings and events in the parks. It’s become a lifetime passion that he still shares today.
The Metroparks are now recognized as No. 1 in the nation, with 18 properties bringing in 4 million visitors a year.
During the Metroparks Toledo Board of Directors’ February 23 meeting, president Scott Savage credited Weber for making the district what it is today.
“Art Weber has represented the Metroparks of Toledo like nobody else,” he said.
This is the first time in Metroparks history that someone has been honored for 50 years of service, said Scott Carpenter, who joined the communications department with Weber 24 years ago.
“His exceptional images are the hallmark of Metroparks communications,” Carpenter said.
For Art, who at 71 is still involved – taking photos for social media, assisting on a variety of media-related projects, digitizing old slides, and working in the field to capture photos to illustrate books on the natural history of the area – his 50-year career has been a succession of lucky breaks.
“In retrospect, you could argue that my career was predestined. It happened in a natural way,” Art said. “I was guided by a series of unplanned, unexpected opportunities.”
As a kid growing up in South Toledo, Art took photos of animals at the Toledo Zoo on a Brownie camera, which was not much more than a simple plastic box that used 120mm film. With only 12 shots to a roll, he had to be picky. His parents encouraged him but – like many in those days – didn’t have a lot of extra money for processing.
In high school, Art inherited his grandfather’s Zeiss Ikoflex, which was a much better camera, but one without a built-in meter or automatic settings, so he had to learn how to make exposures manually.
During his senior year at Bowsher High School, he was accidentally placed in the yearbook class, where he was assigned to the sports desk. It was a move that changed his career trajectory from becoming a scientist or an engineer.
“I realized I was a pretty decent writer,” Art said. “That set me on my course.”
While concentrating on journalism at The University of Toledo, he joined the staff of The Collegian newspaper, where he learned to use early viewfinder Nikons and picked up sports photography skills from upperclassmen. By his senior year, he was editor of the University’s magazine-style yearbook and he also had experienced working for the UT radio station and contributing photos for a nature magazine started by Paul Goff, who happened to be a naturalist for the parks district. It was Goff who urged Art to apply for an unadvertised new job opening. Art’s experience in writing, photography and radio was the reason then-director Bob Metz chose him as the district’s first public information officer (PIO) on March 27, 1972.
In the beginning, the parks staff was small, home-grown and basically a hand-to-mouth operation. Until the passage of the first levy, the district had very little money, Art recalled. He wrote press releases on a typewriter and copied them onto preprinted paper with the park’s banner on it.
“I thought we were really advanced because we had a Xerox machine,” he laughed.
If the news was breaking, Art would hand-deliver the releases to newspapers, radio stations and TV stations – where he made friends or ran into peers from The University of Toledo. As his role expanded, Art worked with naturalists, historians, scientists and educators such Dr. Michael Pratt, whose research led the effort to save the actual site of the Fallen Timbers Battlefield.
“The job reaches out in all directions. You get to work with great people as a writer and photographer. People want to interact with you and vice versa,” he said.
Those interactions have included partnerships with other agencies with shared missions: Ancient Ohio Trail, Black Swamp Conservancy, Nature’s Nursery, the Ohio Division of Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to name a few.
In the 1980s, Art had an opportunity to participate in a program to revive Ohio’s bald eagle population, which was suffering from the effects of the pesticide DDT – which made their eggshells weak and not viable. The breeding population had dropped to just four nesting pairs in 1979, and the state’s eagles were on the brink of extinction.
Art became the first volunteer nest observer, tracking and reporting nesting activity at a nest in the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. When the time was right, biologists would foster captive-bred young birds into the nest that the adults would raise as their own.
The Ohio population of nesting pairs of bald eagles is now above 700, and Art said they’re easy to spot, especially on the Maumee River and in the Lake Erie marshes.
“I still get excited every time I see a bald eagle. They are majestic birds, powerful and agile fliers. I’ve seen them perform amazing acrobatics,” he said.
Weber has seen other success stories over the years, such as the reintroduction of wild turkeys to northwest Ohio. The parks also worked to encourage populations of rare species such as the Karner blue butterfly and lark sparrows, which are the rarest nesting bird in Ohio and a a big draw during the annual Biggest Week in American Birding. Art recalls a time when white-tailed deer were so uncommon that the park district kept some in a pen at Oak Openings, so visitors could see them. The Metroparks are not just about adding land but about preserving and managing habitat, he noted.
In 2002, Art took a step back from his full-time communications role to open the National Center for Nature Photography in the Secor Metropark nature center he used to visit as a kid. He remained in that role until 2015, when he stepped away to spend more time in the field.
The center, which is now closed, promoted nature photography through exhibits and classes at a time when digital cameras were really coming onto the scene and opening doors for amateur photographers.
“The thought was, if we teach people how to use a camera and focus it on nature, they can’t help but be fascinated by what they see and want to learn more. That was the secret diabolical purpose of the photo center,” Art laughed.
He knows this firsthand, as his understanding of nature has grown with each photo.
“I had that passion without the knowledge for a long time,” he said.
His adventures have grown in him a deep love for nature, such Oak Openings Metropark’s wild lupine and the antenna waving wasp, which is found in only a few places in the world.
“Oak Openings is one of the rarest habitats on Earth,” he said. “I never get tired of shooting there.”
He’s currently working on a Metroparks project to update Lou Campbell’s original book, The Natural History of the Oak Openings, with photos from his collection or new photos. In 2020, he teamed up with The University of Toledo Press and Dr. Elliot Tramer to publish Richness and Rarity: The Natural History of Lucas County, which contains 125 of his photos.
Many days, Art gets up and heads to local parks to get early morning photos to share on social media for the Metroparks.
“I typically come and go without being seen. Only the park rangers know for sure where I’ve been on most days the last seven or eight years,” he joked.
The images show an eye for detail and flawless composition, said Metroparks board vice president Fritz Byers.
“The thing that resonates with me is it reflects your patience with nature and wait for an animal’s movement, glint of light or shadow across a landscape,” Byers said.
Board member Lera Doneghy agreed, saying that Art’s work captures God’s eye. She encouraged him to keep going.
“Just because it’s been 50 years – oh well,” she laughed. “It doesn’t mean stop.”
For over 30 years, Art Weber has served as The Mirror’s outdoor editor. He also took photos of Anthony Wayne High School sports for The Mirror for over 25 years.