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After 20 Years of Making Kenton County's Parks a Destination, He's Moving On

It is the end of an era for the Kenton County Parks, a changing of the guard, so to speak.  
 
Steve Trauger, the longtime programs coordinator, is retiring at the end of August after 20 years. The familiar, whiskered figure in cargo shorts and T-shirt, ball cap and work boots will be noticeably absent from the park horizon.
 
"I will miss it greatly," Trauger said. "It is bittersweet. This job has been a godsend for me, and it was perfect for my personality. I am happy and grateful for the opportunity to give people fun and experiences that they might not ordinarily have had. "
 
Trauger was born in Ft. Mitchell,  and raised in Northern Kentucky, and he liked that his family lived for awhile off Turkeyfoot Road in "interesting houses". He went to Caywood Elementary and Turkeyfoot Middle School. His dad died suddenly when Trauger was 12, which was traumatic for his entire family, so his mother moved the family back to Wisconsin where she was from to help her cope with the loss. 
 
As a youngster Trauger played recreational baseball, and in high school he was successful on the track team. Trauger already had a drum set - a good one, Ludwig drums and Zildjan cymbals - but his mom also signed him up for guitar lessons in Wisconsin.
 
"I liked a lot of music, Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, Dan Fogelburg," he said. "When I was at Turkeyfoot they had a talent show, and I wanted to be in it, so I asked my sister, who played in an all girls' band at Dixie called the Cheerdrops if she could help me. I ended up playing 'Today', one of the popular songs at the time. Later, in Wisconsin, I got into a band called the Sound Project, and we practiced in my attic. My mom didn't mind."
 
He played with the band through high school, then went to the University of Wisconsin, where he continued to play guitar, this time solo and in coffeehouses, and he wrote his own music. He was asked to be part of a rock band, but it was a very hard rock band and he said his voice wouldn't work for it so he had to quit.
 
He attended Gogebic, a community college, and received a two-year degree in Ski Area Management, then traveled to Colorado, thinking he would be able to make a career out there. It was June, but still cold. However, the ski resorts were closed for the summer so no one was hiring. Undeterred by what might seem to be the lack of a blueprint for his life, Trauger, a child who grew up in the '60's, looked around for what he could do, whatever caught his attention as interesting and could pay the bills.
 
In the meantime, every year he would receive a Christmas card from a friend, Kim, who had been the girlfriend of a friend in 8th grade in Kentucky. One New Year's Eve he traveled back to Kentucky to meet her for a date, and in 1992 he ended up marrying her. Trauger had actually been thinking of moving to Nashville to work on his music, but he hung around Northern Kentucky for awhile. He had a friend who worked at Banklick Park in the summer, and once when he was playing frisbee he started helping his friend clear the brush to make a disc golf course. He had played high speed throw-and-catch frisbee with his brother, so disc golf was a hobby he liked. In the early fall, the parks department advertised for a programs coordinator, and Trauger applied.
 
"When I was hired in 1996,  the only program they had was softball, men's and women's," he remembered. "They told me, the programs are in the summer - in the winter you plan for summer. My job was to bring the people into the parks. Part of my job was to secure outside funding, too, because the budget wasn't extensive."
 
One of the first programs Trauger developed was Wild Wednesdays. 
 
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"My wife Kim and I were at the Zoo, and we saw this sign that said wildlife comes to you," he said. "I thought that would be great, so we set it up with them, and started Wild Wednesdays. At first we did a lot of zoo programming because I didn't know about other programs. Once I looked into it, I found raptors, and reptiles, and all kinds of critter groups and the program took off."
 
It is not unusual for several hundred people to show up at Trauger's Wild Wednesday programs. There are now pre-programs hosted by the Behringer-Crawford Museum, or the Kenton County Library, and Usborne Books and More, for instance, and post programs hosted by Dominach's Taekwondo, and Jang's Taekwondo, as well as others. The programs include the Zoo, Sunrock Farm's barnyard animals, Arrowhead Reptile Rescue, Mr. Cowpie's party animals, the Cincinnati Museum Center, and Raptor Inc., to name a few. With contributions from businesses and a grant from Children's Hospital, Trauger is able to provide nutritious lunches for only a dollar.
 
"There was only one time in the programs that I was a little nervous," Trauger recalled. "Howard Schwartzman from Giant Snakes brought several snakes, and he talked about how people buy the snakes little, but the snakes never stop growing, so by the time they have outgrown eating mice, then rabbits, and have progressed to goats, it can be pricey. He had shown an anaconda, but it was fairly small. Then he opened a large crate on wheels, and this huge head of a python came out. Moms were pulling their kids back, and cringing back themselves. It was 18 feet long, stretched over three picnic tables. It kept trying to get off the picnic tables. It made me nervous." He laughed. "One other time we had a six foot alligator, and even though he was taped, those things are powerful."
 
Trauger explained that some mayors had gotten together and wondered why there were no programs at Pioneer Park, so Trauger started a science program, the Almost Every Other Thursday Science. Those program days have Incredible insects, Catapult Kids, Science Circus, the art of juggling with Tom Sparough the Space Painter, Polymer-a-palooza, and Chemistry in Your Hands. Trauger felt this was a good alternative since the dog park and the busy 3L Highway in front it was more difficult to have animals at Pioneer park.
 
"We do have Critters in the Creek, too, but this year I think we are going to have to cancel it because on the day we picked for it the bacteria count in the creek was too high," explained Trauger. 
 
Other programs, like the Stargazer program, came about because he and Kim were out and noticed a sign from the Cincinnati Observatory, so Trauger asked what it would take to come to Kentucky. 
 
"He said for a donation we will come to you," Trauger said. "And with them came Midwestern Astrology, a group who brought their own telescopes. We have had as many as sixteen telescopes and up to three-hundred stargazers."
 
A third grade teacher piqued Trauger's interest in birds, and wherever he has gone in his life he has loved watching birds. This led to working with the Boy Scouts and there are now over 100 nest boxes in the parks.
 
Trauger said he visited the Boone County Parks Department and was very impressed with their programs. He tried some Halloween programs at Mills Road Park, and though he knew he couldn't compete with Ft. Thomas and Boone County Parks' Jack-o-lantern walk programs, he had a pumpkin roll that was very popular, and at one time a pumpkin launch, but he was not as happy with it and it was very labor intensive. 
 
He never tried to limit programs to the summer. 
 
Just a few years into his job, Trauger initiated Letters to Santa, a program where children would write their letters to Santa, and would get a personalized letter back, plus some stickers. Trauger worked with the Kenton County public library, and had giant mailboxes at all of the Kenton County courthouses as well as the libraries.  As the years progressed, Trauger adjusted the program, because if siblings in the same household wrote to Santa, they all needed different letters. Trauger concocted six different letters on six different stationaries so that there would be no impediment to children believing they were getting letters from Santa. Trauger thought it was a priority for children to believe they were all individually important to Santa, so he worked hard to make that happen.
 
One time, while he was cleaning up after a Wild Wednesday session, his friend Mike Strohm looked around and told Trauger that there were a lot of maple trees in the park, and they should tap them and make syrup. Trauger liked the idea, after he determined that sap would definitely come out of maple trees in Kentucky, and out of that came Sugar Camp, a program where Trauger, Strohm, and Howard McDaniel stage a camp in the woods in late February where they reenact pioneer times, and boil the sap from the trees over an open campfire. Then they would let children taste the sap, sweetening hot cocoa with it. As with all of his programs, the children absolutely loved it, and loved Mr. Steve.
 
Jamie Schierer has known Trauger for 15 years and has worked with him in Parks for 11 of those years.
 
"We have a lot of the same energy level, and creativeness," she said. "I like working with him, because we both love kids and fun - that's right up my alley. But somebody's got some tough shoes to fill. I know because I have tried to fill in for him when he is on vacation, and believe me, it is quite a task." 
 
Trauger puts such great emphasis on having fun, that he has a saying he puts on his outgoing emails: "We do not stop playing because we grow old; We grow old because we stop playing," a quote attributed to playwright George Bernard Shaw. Even his phone number includes the acronym PLAY.  
 
Trauger's wife Kim agrees. She says her husband is "12 years old in disguise". One of the keys to Traugers' tremendous success as a programs coordinator is that he is able to see things as a child might see it. He delights in seeing children be children having a blast.
 
So what is ahead for this free spirit of a man with a Peter Pan outlook on life? He isn't really sure, but it doesn't bother him. Life doesn't scare Steve Trauger - it intrigues him. He has been a part of Northern Kentucky unplugged, a musical program where people in the area meet on the last Thursday of the month in Edgewood and play sets of songs. This satisfies the music that has always been inside him. In addition, he likes to sell used stuff that he thinks is neat. His mother used to have an antiques store, so he feels like he comes by it naturally. One thing is certain - Steve Trauger will never be bored; he has too much curiosity and joy. 
 
"I don't know, I might move to Florida or some place, because we have no kids or pets, so we could just pick up and go," he stated. Then, with characteristically typical Trauger humor, he quipped, "Heck, I don't have time to work anymore. I've got stuff to do!"
 
Written by Patricia A. Scheyer, RCN contributor