John O'Dell, the founder of the famed River To River Trail that crosses the heart of southern Illinois from the Ohio to the Mississippi rivers, died Nov. 9 in Avon, Indiana.
"John was an educator, an outdoorsman, a community leader and pastor," said his friend and colleague Gillum Ferguson.
Many had thought about making a trail between the two rivers, as far back as the 1930s, Ferguson said, including Delyte Morris, who became Southern Illinois University Chancellor in 1948.
Years ago a short trail was fashioned from Battery Rock on the Ohio River to Route 45, but it was extremely out of the way and never caught on, Ferguson said.
In the 1990s, O'Dell decided to do it himself.
"He got his topo (topographical) maps, put on his boots and blazed a rail from the Ohio to the Mississippi," Ferguson said. O'Dell and his wife, Merilee, would map out each day's journey as he worked to find the best path forward.
Over the years the path has changed in parts. Now it is almost entirely on public land, and the Shawnee National Forest has worked to ensure it is sustainable.
About 15 years ago, O'Dell started promoting a change to the eastern terminus of the trail. Battery Rock could be hard to find, there were no services available for hikers, and the first seven miles or so was on country roads. O'Dell thought Elizabethtown would be a better eastern terminus, with restaurants and services, and the new path gets hikers into the woods immediately.
O'Dell won the day. "In every respect it's a superior location," Ferguson said.
Brian DeNeal, former editor of the Harrisburg Daily Register, got to know O'Dell as a teenager and much better once he worked at the paper.
"When he started doing the guided hikes, my friend and I decided we might sign up for this and meet girls," DeNeal recalled. "We did, but they were in their 70s. I'm still friends with them, but they weren't the demographic we had in mind."
DeNeal said O'Dell was all about bringing people together.
"The trail was good, but the most important thing to him was connecting people to the natural areas of southern Illinois," he said.
"He really wanted to make people's lives better -- to get people away from their troubles and into the woods, to meditate and enjoy the beauty the way it had helped him."
After a few hikes, DeNeal decided that O'Dell's passions and his own meshed and joined each other for hikes. O'Dell enlisted DeNeal in the mission of spreading the word about the natural beauties of southern Illinois.
"I really got to know him when I was working for the newspaper," Brian said. "I was there 16 years and you can probably find 200 different items in the archives. He was very generous with his time."
One of O'Dell's rare unfulfilled ambitions was to create an Ice Age museum near Equality. Mastodon tusks had been unearthed in Shawneetown, and O'Dell was convinced mammoths and sloths would have been attracted to the Half Moon Salt Lick, and that all they needed was to excavate to find their bones.
He tried to find financial backers for the excavation but ultimately failed.
John O'Dell loved southern Illinois and never lost an opportunity to try to promote it, his friends said. And he had a natural curiosity about it.
Besides founding and leading the River To River Trail, he was chairman of the Saline County Tourism Board and president of the Saline County Historical Society. He had the idea for honoring Tecumseh, the famed Shawnee warrior chief who organized a Native American confederacy in hopes of creating an autonomous state.
Professionally, O'Dell was a school administrator, working as close as Benton and Brown County, Indiana, and as far away as Alaska, among other places. He was pastor of the historic Wolf Creek Primitive Baptist Church in Eldorado.
"He was a giant here in southern Illinois," Ferguson said. "He contributed a lot and left a lot behind."
A monument to John O'Dell as founder of the River To River Trail will be dedicated near his beloved trail at the Herod Springs Baptist Church. The church has been a generous friend of the trail, giving hikers shelter and water along the way. The church offered up space for the monument, so that hikers can pass by and see.
Ferguson said the River To River Society wanted to get the dedication done before John passed, and they are disappointed they didn't.
"But he got to see the mock-ups and was thrilled," Ferguson said.