She ran center when it was based in a classroom trailer in Riverside Park

The Urban Ecology Center’s Riverside campus is hosting a memorial service Saturday for Else Ankel, the organization’s founding executive director, who died last week.

Ankel, 85, helped found the center in the early 1990s in Riverside Park, and headed it (in a double-wide classroom trailer bought from a North Shore school district) until her retirement in 1998. It was Ankel who launched the ecology education programs that the center is known for.

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Ankel teaching kids in Riverside Park (photo courtesy of Urban Ecology Center)

Ken Leinbach succeeded her as executive director, and under him the center has added a new building in Riverside Park and branches in Washington Park and the Menomonee River Valley. (Milwaukee Magazine profiled him in July.)

Ankel grew up in Rheinfelden in southwestern Germany, near the borders of Switzerland and France, and said in a 2012 interview that her parents were both “avid outdoor folks, so even before I could walk, they hiked, and no matter what, the kids went along.” An excellent tribute to Ankel on the UEC’s website said they sometimes hiked 10 to 12 hours on a Sunday in the Black Forest.

Ankel was a biochemist, but had an early interest in botany and apprenticed in a botanical garden before attending university, she told interviewer Jim Peck on Milwaukee Public Television’s “I Remember.” She got a doctorate in botany from the University of Basel in Switzerland and then immigrated to Ottawa, Canada, according to her family. It was there she met her husband, Helmut, according to the UEC tribute. The couple moved to Pittsburgh, and then to Milwaukee to work for the Medical College of Wisconsin. They divorced in the 1980s, their children say. Ankel was scientist in residence at Riverside University High School – and living just a few blocks away – when the ecology center was founded, the UEC tribute says.

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Ankel at Lake Park (photo courtesy of family)

She said in the 2012 interview that one of the reasons she started the center was to bring back Riverside Park, which had deteriorated over the years and had problems with crime, and that it did improve as a result of the increased activity connected with the UEC.`

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As for the purpose of the education programs for kids, she said, “What we wanted them to become were the stewards of a piece of nature, the value of which they could increase by, for example, removing non-native species there.”

Toward the end of her life, Ankel had cognitive problems, and pain from a compression fracture in her back. She read widely about a movement that advocates dying at home, and decided that she very much wanted to do that. And she did, in her house on Bartlett Avenue on the East Side. She chose to stop eating on Oct. 2. She eventually had home nursing, and later, hospice care, but she passed away surrounded by family and friends on Friday night.

The memorial service for her will be at 6 p.m. Saturday at the UEC.

She is survived by daughter Franziska, sons Felix (Lisa Holter5-Ankel), Robert (Valerie Brown) and Philip (Alberta Ashbrook-Ankel), and six grandchildren, including two by marriage. In Germany, she’s also survived by three siblings, Walter, Ursula, and Peter, as well as many neices and nephews, and their children.

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