Chicagoan Brenda McKinney to see the world after retiring from the Illinois Urban Fishing Program

McKinney served 27 years and 6 months in Chicago with the program.

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Brenda McKinney teaching about fish earlier this year on an outing with the Illinois Urban Fishing Program.

Brenda McKinney teaching about fish earlier this year on an outing with the Illinois Urban Fishing Program.

Provided by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources

Brenda McKinney went fishing once before she was hired for the Illinois Urban Fishing Program.

“Idlewild, Michigan,” McKinney said. “Gentleman named Pops, back then, took me. I caught nothing. I never had a problem with fish or worms, I wasn’t that kind of young lady.”

Good thing she wasn’t that kind of young lady, considering the tens of thousands of hooks she has baited and fish she has unhooked since. McKinney retires at the end of December after 27 years and six months as natural resources education program coordinator for Chicago in the Illinois Urban Fishing Program.

“They mainly wanted me for the curriculum,” she said. “When I got that job description, I wondered, `Did I really want to do this?’ I almost didn’t go for the interview. But it was best job I ever had. I sometimes share my story with classes.”

So she built an environmental education program that worked with Chicago schools. Part involves fishing, part is teaching students “how the aquatic food chain works and its connection to humanity.” That includes teaching fish anatomy, families of Illinois fish, invasive species in Lake Michigan and the ethics of fishing. A key instruction is how to safely cast with a spincast reel.

Over the years, she has averaged visiting 30 schools and presenting 110 environmental education clinics for 2,900 students annually.

Brenda McKinney, retired coordinator for the Illinois Urban Fishing Program, in a file photo of her with a group of girls earlier this year on an outing with the Illinois Urban Fishing Program.

Brenda McKinney with a group of girls earlier this year on an outing with the Illinois Urban Fishing Program.

Provided by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources

In the summer, she usually has eight seasonal clinic instructors that work with kids and adults at the Chicago Park lagoons.

Several instructors stick in McKinney’s memory.

“Charmaine Zalmann worked every year at Marquette until she felt too old,” McKinney said. “She worked as a teacher’s aide and was an avid outdoorsman, camping and stuff like that. She had a way with kids and was a great educator.”

There was Don Evans and Jeanne Palanck. There’s Sativa Volbrecht, a young woman who traveled with bundles of fishing rods and posters on the CTA to her work sites.

McKinney grew up in Lawndale and South Shore, graduating from South Shore High School in 1969. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in sociology with a minor in education at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle.

She worked for 12 years as pension consultant for an insurance company before downsizing took away the Chicago office and she had no desire to move to New York.

“I knew it was coming and that is when I got certified to teach,” she said.

After certification, she was a regular substitute teacher for kindergarten through eighth grade for the Chicago Public Schools, primarily at Beasley Academic Center.

She wanted to work for the state and spoke with a jobs counselor at the Thompson Center, then did 42 applications. The one that most seemed to suit her was as a public service administrator with the Department of Conservation (now Department of Natural Resources).

“A registered letter told me I would be fishing with kids and develop this curriculum for schools,” she said.

She interviewed and the rest is history.

“I think I am a great teacher,” she said. “I can explain things to various age groups so they understand the material at their levels and I think I am a great instructor as far as people catching fish.”

McKinney will be busy in retirement.

“I will volunteer for animal shelters two days a week and one day a week do something with kids,” she said. “Then travel and see the rest of the world that I haven’t seen.”

In my world, she’s already seen much of it: Morocco, South Africa, Europe, Indonesia, New Zealand, most Caribbean Islands, Costa Rica.

“I want to get to Dubai and Egypt, haven’t been there yet,” she said.

Brenda McKinney listening and pondering in November during her final meeting of the Chicago Fishing Advisory Committee in her role with the Illinois Urban Fishing Program. Credit: Dale Bowman

Brenda McKinney listening and pondering in November during her final meeting of the Chicago Fishing Advisory Committee in her role with the Illinois Urban Fishing Program.

Dale Bowman

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