MIAMI COUNTY — John DeBoer made his stage debut as a musician when he was just 4 years old, but his memory of performing goes back to an even younger age.
“I started banging on the piano as a toddler. I can remember crawling around on the floor and seeing people playing the piano and having fun. I thought, ‘I’m gonna get up there and do that myself,’” he said. “I pulled myself up on the bench, and I remember the first time I hit the keys and they made a noise … it was like, ‘Wow!”
Decades later, though he has performed on stages around the world, with countless major artists, that sense of wonder hasn’t left DeBoer, whom many in the area know as “Spirit of Thunder” through his work as a naturalist with the Miami County Park District.
Born in Willard, a small city in the middle northern region of Ohio, DeBoer came to these parts in his 20s, and attended Ohio University in Athens, as well as The Ohio State University, where he became certified to teach music and business mathematics.
“I’m still certified in math, but I focus mostly on music,” he said.
Skilled on the keyboard and Native American flute, DeBoer has been a working musician for more than three decades, touring for a time with the Dick Clark Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival, doing session work, working with big names from Chubby Checker to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and even recording seven of his own albums.
“I did a lot of different work for a lot of different people,” he said. “It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed doing it.”
DeBoer says he “accidentally” walked into a job with the park district, when he was hired to play the Native American flute at a wedding at Charleston Falls Preserve in Tipp City.
“At that time, the ranger came over and asked me, and that’s how I ended up with the park district,” he said, chuckling at the memory. “The Evening of Lights Christmas party was my first job. That’s where I met the education director, who said, ‘Have you ever thought about teaching?’”
In addition to his teaching certification, DeBoer’s love of the outdoors naturally lent itself to working with the park district. “My dad was an avid hunter. My family has always been wood elves, we were always involved in the parks,” he said.
During his 11 years with the park district, DeBoer has worked with people of all ages, from all walks of life, from nature lovers to those who had never before set foot in the woods.
“It’s always been about the children and the people I work with, all the smiles and the great big wide eyes,” he said. “It’s really wonderful taking all the children and telling them about the woods and the different legends of the woods.”
When asked to name a favorite event or highlight of his job, DeBoer doesn’t stop at just one. In addition to his flute walks and dog socials, he speaks highly of the Path Finders program, offered to both the public and taught in Piqua City Schools to sixth graders using GPS technology. In addition to teaching younger about such concepts as latitude and longitude, the program is just plain fun, which is crucial, DeBoer emphasized.
“Fun is the key to learning,” he said. “If it’s drudgery, it’s hard to swallow.”
Other favorites include his Naturalist Adventure Series and “Keepers of the Land,” which teaches students about the animals and legends of the woods.
DeBoer is especially proud of the NASA moon rocks program he brought to county schools for two years in a row. “Those rocks are a national treasure. It was a real educational thing for the kids to understand how rocks and minerals work,” he said.
The program also required DeBoer to think even further outside the box. “It was something that required stepping out of my comfort zone. I had to go to NASA and get trained. I got my certification from NASA, which looks good on my resume,” he said, laughing.
Now, as he prepares to retire, DeBoer looks back on his decade-plus with the park district as a blessing.
“The Creator has been good to me, allowing me to do the things I do. I feel blessed in many ways,” he said. “Working in the parks, you get to be out in the air every day. I’ve worked with tens of thousands of kids and enjoyed every second of it. I also learned a lot.”
But retirement doesn’t mean DeBoer is packing up his flute anytime soon.
“Rumors of my retirement are greatly exaggerated,” he said, with another burst of laughter. “I play and perform and create … they’ve already asked me to come back and do some programs for them.”
Details of those programs will be worked out in the months to come. In the interim, DeBoer will be busy writing and recording music, and working on books. “I tell stories and do performances … I work for everybody at one time or another,” he said.
“I have an agenda of a lot of things I have not done because I’ve been really busy with the parks. There’s a lot of things I’ve put off and put to the side. This will give me a little more time to do those things.”
DeBoer’s biggest project will be spending more time with his young grandson, Zane, whom he’s instilling with a love for nature and the outdoors.
“He’s only gonna be 5 for a certain period of time,” DeBoer said. “He’s gonna outgrow Grandpa after a while, but right now I’m his hero.”
Reach Belinda M. Paschal at (937) 451-3341