SUNDERLAND — Sitting outside the Richard Cronin National Salmon Station in Sunderland nearly a month after retiring as fish hatchery manager, Bernard Michael “Mickey” Novak Jr. finds it hard to keep still.
Every so often, he gets up from where he’s taken a seat at the edge of the raceway pond to point out different kinds of wildlife. He gets down on his hands and knees to look at a small red bug — and points out that this is part of what he’s done over the years with the many young children who visited the station for educational programs.
“No two days are ever alike at work,” he recalls. “It never got repetitive. It never got tiring. I felt like I was a kid in the candy store.”
Novak, 67, of Monson, retired from a 37-year-career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on March 31. He became hatchery manager at the Cronin Salmon Station in January 1992.
One of his favorite parts of the job was educating young people about nature, and he plans to continue doing do as a volunteer. In mid-April, 150 fourth graders from Quarry Hill Community School in Monson visited the hatchery, where they waded into the raceway pond to catch salmon.
Novak read all the “thank-you” letters those students sent. They include notes such as, “Thank you for the greatest field trip ever, Mr. Novak,” and, “Thank you Mickey and all your volunteers making it the funnest day ever.” One student wrote, “It’s worth the ride to have some fun” and drew a picture of a school bus, he added.
He said he’s probably accumulated thousands of letters like these over his career, and many of them he has kept. “They’re precious,” Novak said. “They’re one of a kind.”
Novak’s own interest in nature began when he was growing up in Ware, he recalls. He loved being outside, and one day, a neighbor asked him to go fishing in the Ware River, where they caught bluegills.
“I was hooked ever since,” said Novak, taking note of the pun.
As a senior at Ware High School, he was accepted into Colorado State University’s fisheries biology program. When he was an undergraduate in the mid- to late-1960s, the Vietnam War was at its peak and he trained as an Army officer in the ROTC program. After he graduated, he went to Fort Riley in Manhattan, Kansas, where he became a second lieutenant. From there he went to Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, and then to Vietnam in 1971 and 1972.
Upon return from the war, he said, he “took a year off from the world” and traveled around the country in a 1970 Volkswagen camper. At some point during the spring of 1973, he applied for a job as a park ranger naturalist at the Grand Canyon National Park. Soon after, while he was visiting friends at Fort Gordon, he got a call from his mother at home with the news that a letter came for him saying he had been selected for the job. He was 26 years old at the time.
He spent four years with the U.S. National Park Service before he began his first job with the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1977 as refuge manager at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Milton, Delaware.
Novak said he is one of the only people he knows who has managed both a wildlife refuge and a fish hatchery. He made the switch, he said, because as a refuge manager, part of his job was federal law enforcement, which meant he had to carry a gun — something he had already done during the war.
“I didn’t want to carry a weapon in civilian life,” he said.
While he was adjusting to life after the war, he found fishing to be a therapeutic activity. In the same year he became hatchery manager, he started a fishing program for veterans at the hatchery’s pond, and over the years has invited veterans from both the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds and the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke.
“I see the look. It’s in their eyes,” Novak said. “Fishing is one way to relax. I needed to fish all the time to stay relaxed.”
Bill Archambault, who is deputy assistant regional director for fisheries at the Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley and supervised Novak for 13 years, said that the veterans’ fishing program will continue despite Novak’s retirement.
“Once I saw firsthand what Mickey was doing there, he really made me a believer in the program,” he said. “He’s just opened my eyes to the power of using fish as a tool to help.”
Archambault said that part of what makes Novak unusual is his strong compassion for others, and that it has led him to touch many lives over the course of his career.
“He’s not a taker. He’s a giver. He’s the type of person that if he hears a sad story, he wants to do something about it,” said Archambault. “The thing that makes him most happy is when he is helping someone else.”
Novak said that by the time his daughter, Ashleigh, now 21 and a marine biology student at the University of New England in Maine, was in preschool, he realized that there was a need for children to get outside and learn about the natural world. He asked the preschool teacher if he could bring in bones, skulls and live aquatic bugs to show the class. This, Novak said, is what got him started with his education efforts for children.
“As the years progressed, fewer and fewer people each decade were spending time outside,” he said. “I was seeing fewer and fewer kids that had an interest or opportunity to go outside.”
Each year as hatchery manager, he would speak to an average of 2,500 to 4,000 students, he said. Either they would come to the hatchery, or he would visit their classrooms. In his retirement, he said, he expects these numbers to drop to between 600 and 700 students each year.
Bob O’Neil, of Hadley, is a volunteer who has helped with the youth education programs and the veterans’ fishing events at the hatchery for nearly seven years.
“I see him work with the kids, and he’s a natural teacher,” he said. “You just sort of get a kick out of watching him in action.”
O’Neil, who is also a Vietnam veteran, said he first met Novak at the Olde Hadley Flea Market on Route 47, where several retirees like to spend time and “just sort of feed off Mickey’s energy,” he said. “I couldn’t keep up with him for a day,” he added with a laugh.
The day before he retired, Novak was recognized with the 2014 Heroes for a Healthy Planet award from the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst. The award recognizes a person who has gone beyond their job in promoting greater environmental awareness and literacy, said Julie Johnson, executive director of the Hitchcock Center.
Novak has been an important partner in the center’s education efforts, she said. The center has hosted field trips to the hatchery as part of its summer camps, after-school and preschool programs.
“He’s just been a fabulous educator,” Johnson said. “Primarily, it’s just his incredible passion for what he does. He’s just this exemplary model of a person who loves what he does and connects really well with children. That passion is so infectious, and has really engaged kids.”
She said 160 people attended the awards ceremony at Amherst College.
When he has not been at the hatchery, Novak sells antique books and artwork at the Olde Hadley Flea Market, and said he plans to increase his hours there in his retirement.
He is also a group leader for Nomads of Hope, a Monson-based international service organization for youths and adults, and is assistant coach for the Monson High School girls varsity lacrosse team.
He and his wife, Jewell, have been married 35 years. Living with them now are two cocker spaniels, Buddy and Zoe — who follow Novak as he walks around the hatchery — and a cat, a Siamese and Ragdoll mix named Arwen, after “The Lord of the Rings” character.
“I was very, very fortunate. There are people who go through their whole life not knowing what they wanted to do,” Novak said. “You follow your dream and it worked out.”