Boomer Beat: Tobiasz a master at gardening, enjoying life

Wow! I was intrigued the first time I heard Rich Tobiasz being introduced as a speaker at a McHenry Master Gardener Program.

“Rich Tobiasz is jack of all trades and master of most,” Brenda Dahlfor, director of the program, said in her introduction.

As I got to know Rich better, I’ve come to know his gift for seeing the big picture, his ability to be calm in a storm, his leadership, knowledge and humor.

Rich is highly knowledgable in organic gardening and recently received his masters degree in crop science from the University of Illinois. He also happens to be the fire chief of Spring Grove.

A fire chief is a job with many diverse skills. Typically, Rich is in command during fires, directing his 39-member crew. Occasionally, he is in a paramedic role. Then, unfortunately, there are times when he is needed to help families in tragic situations. On the other side of the coin, he is the business manager responsible for budgets, insurance and finances. Finally, there are meetings within his own department and with the village and county.

When Rich was a senior in high school, his family moved to Spring Grove. There, he met Bill Reneke, a high school teacher and the town’s fire chief. Bill inspired Rich to become a volunteer firefighter. Training as a firefighter and paramedic, however, was not enough to satisfy Rich’s drive. He went on to get a bachelor’s degree in fire science and gradually worked his way up to fire chief of Spring Grove and has been in that position for more than 38 years. I am sure the people of Spring Grove will be comforted to hear Rich considers himself to be “pretty decent” at his job.  

Life in McHenry County has afforded Rich some unique opportunities. He met Jim May, master storyteller and founder of the Illinois Storytelling Festival. Through this friendship, Rich became captivated with the powerful effect the telling of a story can have on people. So much so that he began to share a few tall tales in the “Liars Contest” at the festival. 

In 2002, Rich’s profession and his love of storytelling came together in a tragic but deeply moving way. He was at the festival and listening to an elderly woman, Lisa Derman, share her story of how she had escaped death in a Nazi concentration camp. As she finished, Lisa said, “I will not be here much longer, but you must stand up when you are called.” Moments later, she went into cardiac arrest. Rich and a nurse from the audience rushed to perform CPR until the rescue squad arrived. Lisa did not survive, but later that day, Rich had a chance to take her advice, to “stand up when you are called,” as he shared his own story with the audience. 

The various parts of Rich’s life come together when you learn that in his early years, he lived in an apartment in Chicago upstairs from his Busia (Polish for “grandmother”) and Jaja (grandfather). For Rich, their life of love and hard work is symbolized in Busia’s garden. On a large city lot, she raised vegetables for the family as well as flowers and even fruit trees. Busia gardened organically. Every unwanted scrap went into the “pit box” (compost bin), the same place from which Jaja retreived his worms for fishing. 

Rich and Wendy, his wife of 24 years, live on five acres in Spring Grove with a dog, a cat, six sheep, six goats, turkeys and chickens. They grow all the usual vegetables, have a fruit orchard and what they don’t grow they buy locally. They bake bread and now are enjoying sweet corn as it comes out of their garden.

When Rich met Wendy, she was an emergency room nurse and a small-time gardener. Today, she spends lots of time in their big-time garden as well as taking care of the animals and milking the goats. 

Rich would never forgive me if I did not mention this year’s Illinois Master Gardener Conference of which he is the co-chair. It will be Sept. 6-8 at the Crystal Lake Holiday Inn & Conference Center and will feature Eliot Coleman, a nationally recognized expert in organic farming. Other activities will include visits to estates, heritage farms and vegetable producers, as well as classes on beekeeping, lawn care, bonsai, vermicomposting and native trees.

To register or for information, visit

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