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Tom O'Rourke's childhood camp experience grew into love of nature

Learning a youth lesson about wilderness led Tom O'Rourke to become the executive director of Hartley Nature Center -- and that lesson is still something he prizes today.

Tom O'Rourke
Tom O'Rourke of Duluth is the executive director of Hartley Nature Center in Duluth and is a 2013 20 under 40 winner. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Learning a youth lesson about wilderness led Tom O'Rourke to become the executive director of Hartley Nature Center -- and that lesson is still something he prizes today.

"I went to summer camp as a kid and I got to go on canoeing and backpacking trips," O'Rourke said. "I gained a reverence for wild places and came to understand, protect and preserve them."

O'Rourke also explains that his camper's know-how not only taught him respect for nature, but that it also allowed him to build skills such as connecting to diverse groups of people and how to be a team player. All of which he says he uses daily.

There's another asset that he values enough to speak fondly of -- reading. O'Rourke says that the marvel of reading has a lot to do with traveling to places, without the exorbitant travel cost. Reading enabled him to experience places without having to go there, he said, and that helped him develop a sense of empathy.

"Reading is like getting in someone's head and seeing their point of view. It's what helped me connect with people," he said. "It expanded the scope of my life."

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"He's genuinely good at connecting with people. I think people like to tell him their stories, and he's also a great storyteller himself," said Hartley's education director, Joy Turnbull-Dunham. "He's one of those people that puts themselves out there. It's very easy to do the same with him."

The praise of reading and lifelong enjoyment of the wild are both skills that Tom O'Rourke has used to his advantage. These skills helped acquire his position at Hartley, which is leading him every day to make new goals and plans. He frequently develops new plans and seeks more ways to create ties between people and nature, but his career also has brought him to many new experiences, like relating to children.

"It led me to learn of programming and younger children. Even to develop new programs, one of which is a nature-based preschool at Hartley."

"Most of his day is financial stuff, but he's really good with kids. He has two young children, and they're really drawn to him," Turnbull-Dunham added. "He's really great and fun with kids."

But, even with what he has learned in life, O'Rourke maintains that he's still learning, and one of those lessons he's grasping is balance.

"I'm trying to -- approaching my middle age -- learn balance, learn moderation. An idea that I would like is for my work, family and friends to not be too heavily weighted. That is still something I'm trying to learn, even today."

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