DECATUR — In 1976, Jeff Tish was hired by the Macon County Conservation District to operate a tractor at what was then known as Friends Creek Regional Park.
Looking back on that day, the life-long nature lover from Decatur considers it as something that he "could have only dreamed of."
"One of my dad's favorite things to say was 'If you find a job doing something you like, then you go to work every day getting paid to do something you like," said Tish, 63.
Tish retired from his position as program services manager for the conservation district on Thursday, after spending 41 years doing something he liked.
That evening, his family, friends and co-workers hosted a party for him on the the bottom floor of the Rock Springs Nature Center. A sign outside of the room instructed all of the attendees to "eat, drink and be merry" as they celebrated both Tish's career and his genial personality.
"He's a barrel of laughs," said Paul Marien, the conservation district's executive director. He and Tish have worked together for over 30 years, and said that he admired Tish's ability to educate people of all ages about nature.
"He's got this talent for working with little kids," Marien said. "He's just a natural born naturalist."
Tish spent most of his years with the conservation district interacting with people who visited the district's parks and conservation areas, and teaching them everything that he could about the outdoors — including how to identify certain birds and flowers and pointing out constellations in the sky. The district includes more than 3,000 acres, six conservation areas and six historic sites, plus various educational programs.
Ironically, he said that his ability to connect with others through nature wasn't always as easy for him as some may think.
"I was pretty shy when I first started," Tish said. "It was really trial by fire, since I had to do it for my job. The more I did it, I got to be pretty good at it."
Talking to others about what interests him soon became his favorite part of the job, Tish said. His preferred way of introducing people to the wonders of the outdoors was to take them on nature awareness walks, he said.
"I like helping people experience things, and helping them see nature for the first time," Tish said. "It's important to share that knowledge, so that they can truly comprehend the value of the world."
Joe Sidwell of Mount Zion has known Tish for about 40 years, and said that his presence within the conservation district will be sorely missed.
"He's schmaltzy, because he's got a big heart and he loves his people," Sidwell said. "There's going to be a humongous void to fill, because he was such a big part of the district over the years."
Marien echoed Sidwell's feelings, saying the district will sorely miss Tish's expansive knowledge and his passion for his work.
"We wish him the very best," he said.
Tish said that he's looking forward to "mixing it up" by traveling and spending more time with his family.
However, he also plans to stay connected with the conservation district and the programs that he used to oversee as a patron, as his dedication to the joys of nature is just as strong as it was when he was hired 41 years ago.
"Nature doesn't have to be frightening or threatening," Tish said. "It's one of the most positive things that can be available to younger people and older folks. It can be very helpful and healing."