The Jefferson County Conservation Board met Monday and approved the hiring of a new board director and naturalist.
Director Dennis Lewiston and Naturalist Therese Cummiskey are retiring at the end of the fiscal year on June 30. The two have been the face of conservation in the county for more than three decades. Lewiston has worked for the county for 36 years, and Cummiskey has worked for it 30 years.
The board hired Shawn Morrissey to replace Lewiston, and Brittney Tiller to replace Cummiskey. Both of them have experience working for Jefferson County Conservation. Morrissey is the county conservation operations supervisor.
“I think it will be a smooth transition since I’m familiar with what [Dennis] does and with the day-to-day operations of the parks,” he said.
Tiller and her husband Matthew have been the park hosts of Jefferson County Park for the past three years, meaning they manage the campground on evenings and weekends.
Morrissey did a few odd jobs after college but has spent most of his adult life working in parks. He became a park ranger for Jefferson County in 1996, and has worked for the county ever since. In that time, he’s learned much about caring for campgrounds, hunting areas and maintenance, particularly after his promotion to operations supervisor 15 years ago.
“There are things Dennis does that I’ll still have to pick up, and that’s why I’m glad we’ll still be working together for the next five months,” he said. “If he needs to show me something about the budget, he can do that. It’s not like I’m getting dropped into a completely new thing.”
Morrissey expects to have more office work like managing bills and payroll in his new post. His current role involves a lot of work outside on the facilities.
“Dennis and Therese will be missed, no doubt,” he said. “Therese has taught several generations of kids about the outdoors. School groups that come here for field trips always have a good experience. And Dennis has been a good person to work for. Under his supervision, we’ve built facilities and trails, and given residents many opportunities to enjoy the parks. People who come to the parks are usually happy and entertained.”
Bob Leazer, now a park technician, will become the operations supervisor upon Morrissey’s promotion to director. Leazer has worked at that position for the past 10 years. He will be replaced either by another park technician or a park ranger.
“Bob has a lot of experience, so I think we’re going to be in good shape,” Morrissey said.
Tiller’s relationship with Jefferson County Conservation goes back to her days as a Fairfield High School student. She participated in the school-to-work program, which meant spending a semester working alongside Cummiskey.
“That experience solidified my goal of becoming a county conservation naturalist,” she said. “Therese encouraged me to look into a program at the University of Northern Iowa, where I went on to graduate with a degree in earth science.”
Tiller graduated from UNI in the spring of 2012. She had internships at several conservation offices throughout the state, and eventually landed a full-time job as the Louisa County naturalist. She worked there for several years until she and her husband had their first child, whereupon they moved to Fairfield to be closer to Tiller’s parents, Greg and Lori Fry.
For a year and a half, Tiller was the event coordinator for the Fairfield Area Chamber of Commerce. She served under former chamber director Detra Dettmann, who had also worked in Louisa County conservation programs.
Tiller never lost contact with her true passion of conservation. In the summers of 2016 and 2017, she helped organize programs at the Jefferson County Nature Center on topics such as birding basics, canoe training and night tracking.
Tiller and her husband have lived in Jefferson County Park for the past three years working as the park hosts. They lock the gate at 10 p.m. every night and unlock it every morning. They make sure the park is running smoothly once the staff have gone home for the night. However, they will be moving out of their home soon, since the board has decided that the new full-time park ranger or park technician will take over the role of park host.
Excited to plan
Tiller said she is excited to start planning programs for the county. Some of her favorites from her previous roles have included astronomy and one called “extreme adventures.” It was a Louisa County program to reunite junior high and high school students with the outdoors.
“Young kids are really excited about going outside, but as they get older, they get involved in other activities and tend to stop coming to outdoor events,” she said. “That program was geared toward pushing them outside their comfort zone. We did scuba diving, rock climbing, zip-lining and whitewater kayaking. I formed a lot of great friendships with kids, and I’m still in contact with them.”
Tiller said it is such an honor to be assuming Cummiskey’s role, because she’s looked up to her since childhood.
“Therese is a dear friend of mine. She’s shaped my life and what I’m passionate about,” Tiller said. “In college, she’d ask about my classes, and she even came to a couple programs we did in Louisa County.”
Tiller said Cummiskey has promised her she will still be around, and won’t be gone long from environmental education programs.
“I’m going to hold her to that,” Tiller said.