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Downers Grove resident's book uncovers life of Chicago naturalist

Ronald Vasile
Ronald Vasile

DOWNERS GROVE - William Stimpson helped build the foundation for the Chicago Academy of Sciences, but most of his life’s work like his unpublished manuscripts and specimen collection – all that could have preserved his legacy – was destroyed during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. 

What was left was a notebook of letters from major naturalists who were “commiserating with his losses,” Ronald Vasile recalled. 

Vasile was only 27 when he first stumbled upon Stimpson’s name and his set of letters. By that point, he had been with the Chicago's natural history museum for four years and was working with archives.

Vasile was curious about who Stimpson was. He, too, knew very little of him, aside from the fact that he had strong ties to the Chicago Academy of Sciences, and “nobody had ever written about his life” before. Vasile took on the project himself and dedicated nearly the last three decades to finding Stimpson. 

The end result is Vasile’s biography, “William Stimpson and the Golden Age of American Natural History,” which is published through Northern Illinois University Press and available on Amazon for purchase. 

“He was someone who was very prominent and then got lost in history,” said Vasile, now 59 and a longtime resident of Downers Grove. “For me, that’s a story, and that’s what I like to do. I like to recover the stories of people who were prominent and then sort of faded away.” 

As far as putting the book together, Vasile broke down his writing process and the last 32 years of his life. Vasile was a first-time author and primarily focused on research. He wanted to know who Stimpson was beyond his contribution to the world of natural history.

“Historians are like detectives,” Vasile said. “Historians are like investigative journalists. Something’s happened. You have to collect evidence. You have to find evidence.” 

Through his work with the Chicago Academy of Sciences, Vasile had some access to resources, so he could figure out who Stimpson was.

“The first thing was to find every article that he wrote and that necessitated going through all sorts of journals,” he said, noting every piece of writing revealed Stimpson’s personality.

Vasile followed and figured out those clues, which ultimately led him to the Smithsonian. While there, he found that Stimpson was the “ringleader” of his Megatherium Club, which was comprised of other notable naturalists. 

“They’re all in their 20s,” Vasile laughed. “They were all very ambitious. They all like to drink and chase women.” 

These little anecdotes gave Stimpson’s life color. Vasile said the Megatherium Club’s social side like “blowing off steam” and attending parties at the White House offered a playful yet stark difference to the naturalists’ often tedious, solitary work and specimen examination.  

In terms of his personal life, Vasile got married. He became a father and made a couple career changes before becoming a history teacher at Lockport Township High School. Vasile honored his wife, Jennifer, in his book for being his inspiration and her constant support. 

“She’s the one that gave me the time with three kids to where I had to just sit in my room and write,” he said. “She allowed me that time to work.” 

Completing Stimpson’s biography was just one half of the battle. The other was getting the story finally published.

“And then came rejections,” he said. “Many, many rejections.”

But Vasile was persistent. He continued to perfect his book and tried to connect and work with other historians, so he could get more edits, more feedback.

“I worked on this for a long time,” he said. “I’m not going to stop.”

Last summer, his biography was finally released. A copy of it can also be found at the Downers Grove Public Library’s “Local Authors” section. 

On Jan. 12, Vasile will return to the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum for the Founder’s Day Celebration. Amidst a day that includes a fun, explorative exhibition, Vasile will lead an afternoon talk about Stimpson’s career and lasting impact on the museum, followed by a book signing. 

“The big life lesson here is perseverance,” Vasile said. “I’m not the smartest person in the world, but I did not give up. I was very dedicated to finishing this. So, I tell my students you have to have goals and they should be goals that are difficult.”