MILLVILLE — After 38 years, Tim Williams plans to retire next month as manager of the Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary and Audubon Center.
He hosted his last group of students Friday, when 27 fourth-graders from Trinity Christian Academy came for a visit.
They got the full Williams experience, which is to say they were entertained while learning.
For example, Williams, 62, had the class sniff the fragrance from the blooms of a Kentucky coffee tree.
"In my opinion, it's one of the nicest things nature provides for us," Williams said.
Then he ushered them into the bird blind where, thanks to a one-way mirror, the students could see woodpeckers and chickadees up close, but the birds couldn't see them.
(Williams recalled that a seventh-grader once said about the one-way mirror, "Oh, that's just like it is at the police station," apparently a reference to the interview room where suspects are questioned.)
Then Williams led the class into the nature center, where he showed how an American toad eats mealworms in the blink of an eye. The toad chirped in his hands.
"In the frog world, the boys talk and the girls listen. Only in the frog world," Williams said.
Finally, Williams took the class on a short hike through the woods and around one of the sanctuary's two ponds. Along the way he talked about fox scat, pointed to a turkey vulture resting on a utility pole, noted a wolf spider carrying eggs on her back (when the eggs hatch, the spiderlings will continue to hitch a ride), and netted a tadpole and a dragonfly nymph out of the pond for inspection.
The kids ate it up, as they have for nearly four decades, even though the woodland trail was muddy from recent rains.
Getting dirty is part of exploring nature. Williams remembered how one youngster evaluated his Buckley experience: "This place is more better than a zoo because you can get muddy and touch stuff."
Teaching children and adults about nature was Williams' favorite thing about the job he has had since Jan. 1, 1975. But there was a lot more to it, including maintaining and raising money for the 379-acre sanctuary in Woodford and Franklin counties — the only one operated by the National Audubon Society in Kentucky.
The sanctuary was set aside by Emma Buckley in 1967 as a memorial to her late husband, Clyde, a Lexington tobacco warehouse owner.
Except for a grant from the Woodford County Conservation District, no tax dollars are used in the operation of the sanctuary, which has an annual budget of about $120,000. It receives most of its operating money through admissions, grants, private donations and an endowment.
Much has changed during Williams' tenure. When he arrived, the driveway was gravel; now it's asphalt. The nature center used to be heated by space heaters. Now it has electric heat and central air. A picnic pavilion has been added. During the 1990s, more than 100 contiguous acres were added to the sanctuary.
The wildlife population has changed, too. There are more wild turkeys and deer now than there were during the mid-70s.
"For years, people would ask what's the most unusual bird I've ever seen, and I would have to think hard," Williams said. "But just this year, I was cleaning the windows in the bird blind and something called a white-winged crossbill was there."
That's a type of finch with scissorslike mandibles that are perfect for extracting seeds from pine cones. It's normally seen in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, not in Kentucky.
Someone once asked Williams what he sees when he looks out a window of the nature center. His answer was that the lawn needed mowing or a fence needed mending.
"My mind says I can do everything I've been doing," he said. "But things hurt. Knees hurt and shoulders hurt when I get done pushing a lawn mower and walking around for two hours or carrying a chain saw. As much as I would like to continue doing it, I just think that it's time for somebody else to make this happen."
His successor has not been named.
In the meantime, Williams and his wife, Debbie, plan to move to Cold Spring in Campbell County, where they will be closer to relatives in Northern Kentucky. Williams grew up in Covington and graduated with a degree in biology from Northern Kentucky State College (later Northern Kentucky University) in 1974. The following year, he succeeded Ellwood "Bud" Carr as Buckley's manager.
As for his approaching retirement, Williams joked, "I'm going to take up needlepoint and watch soap operas."
But really, he wants to rekindle his love for the guitar and magic tricks, and perhaps learn to cook.
As for Central Kentucky, he said, "The main thing I'm going to miss is how friendly everybody is ."