When Beckie Boutilier points to a mural of John Janzen, she doesn't just see a silver-haired man in a suit and tie.

She sees a guardian for green space.

Boutilier is the natural history program coordinator at the centre, a gateway to Edmonton's river valley at 143 Street. 

She feeds the bunnies in their exhibit room, shows off the bees in a working hive and greets thousands of visitors to the spot, now in its 40th year.

But she says when the centre was established, it was a bit of a fight.

"There definitely wasn't the same focus on nature and the environment that we have right now," she says. "There were a lot of businesses that saw this as prime real estate and, truthfully, it is."

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An acrylic on canvas by artist Genevieve Simms of the namesake of the nature centre John Janzen. (Adrienne Lamb)

John Janzen, the man

John Janzen was born on May 8, 1923 in Siberia, Russia.

He was educated in agriculture in Saskatchewan and Ontario before spending three years serving in the Royal Canadian Air Forces, until 1945.

Janzen then travelled the world using his knowledge of agriculture to design golf courses in the West Indies, South America and Canada. 

In 1960, he landed a job as deputy parks commissioner for the Toronto Parks Department before coming west to Edmonton to take up the post of superintendent of Parks and Recreation. He held that job from 1966 to 1972.

In making the argument for funding of a nature centre, Janzen wrote it would "need to provide a program of public education designed to develop people well-grounded in a working knowledge of their outdoor environment and committed to the cause of protecting that environment."

But an illness and hospitalizations forced John Janzen to leave work.

He died March 7, 1972 at the age of 48 —  four years before the building bearing his name opened its doors on Oct. 6, 1976.

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John Janzen and other members of the Northern Alberta Pioneers and Old Timers' Association in 1967. (City of Edmonton Archives EA-10-3179)

A man of 'unswerving principles'

George Hughes was the city commissioner in charge of parks, and Janzen's boss.

At the time of his death, Hughes wrote Janzen was a man of "unswerving principles."

"An example of this was his protection of the river valley," Hughes said. "John believed that some encroachment leads to more encroachment and to total takeover."

As for Boutilier, she considers John Janzen an unsung environment hero.

"He's one of the reasons why we have the largest urban green space in North America," she says.

You can see more from the John Janzen Nature Centre on Our Edmonton on Saturday at 10 a.m., Sunday at 11 a.m. and Monday at 11 a.m. on CBC TV.

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Surveyor working on the site of the John Janzen Nature Centre in July of 1974. (City of Edmonton Archives ET-18-3607)