The Community: Paul Bigford serves in many capacities, wins legacy award

Editor's note: "Getting to know our community" is a new regular feature in the Star. Each person has a story to share, hobbies, experiences and wisdom learned from life. The Star is reaching out to people in the Lake County area of all ages and walks of life to interview. If readers would like to suggest a local area resident, or someone who works in the county to share their story, email Shanna Avery at shanna153@gmail.com.

SWEETWATER TWP. — When one thinks of someone stepping up for the community and causes they believe in, it is no surprise Paul Bigford, of Sweetwater Township, was recently chosen for a legacy award from the Mason/Lake Conservation District. In fact, over the many years, Bigford could be seen, often in charge, on many county and area boards — doing what he can to make a difference in four main areas: Education, adventure/youth, public service and environment.  

With an avid interest in history, Bigford, who was born in Flint in 1950, Bigford, can trace some of his ancestors to the Mayflower. But in more recent history, he was introduced to Lake County through his grandfather, Harold Bigford, who brought vacant pieces of land at Wolf Lake in 1933, and hired a guy to build a cabin and furniture for only $300. 

"By 1958, Grandpa needed elbow room, and got a place on the Pere Marqutte River, where I am now. The house is about 100-years-old, and when he got it, it had no heat or water. He would bring his father, Wilbur, up, as well as my dad, John. Now with my kids, there have been six generations that have slept under that roof," Bigford said, who, as a licensed home builder, renovated the place top to bottom. 

Growing up, Bigford's family moved around quite a bit, to New Jersey and Massachusetts, so his dad, who worked for the phone company, could earn advancements.  

"I had lived 11 different places by the time I got out of high school," he said. "When I moved here (to Lake County), I said, 'I am not moving again.' I've been here since 1976.

EDUCATION

Before moving to Lake County, Bigford took up forestry at Michigan State University, (the colors green and white he still proudly displays to this day.) With his first degree in forestry, and a masters in parks and recreations, the U.S. Forest Service had a hiring freeze. There wasn't much available nearby for parks and recreation, so he got his teaching certificate, and landed a teaching job at Baldwin Community Schools, teaching earth science and life science for 9½ years. 

When Bigford left Baldwin Schools, he formed an accelerated high school in Big Rapids, and was gifted and talented instructor for the Mecosta-Osceola  Intermediate School District. 

"I still had a lot of strong connections to Baldwin, so as I was principal at the math/science/technology center, I made the center available to Lake County students, who were bussed to Big Rapids for about four to five years, till change in administration, when it was discontinued." 

Bigford said the program was very successful, with many kids earning scholarships, one girl earning $2 million dollars. 

He started the Michigan Math/Science Symposium. Kids who did research as high-school students got their works published and recognized, and this was sent to the public colleges in the state. 

He also worked with the program, Girls Plus Math Plus Science Equals Choices, to get more girls involved in the math and science center. He also was legislative chairperson for the Michigan Math/Science Centers Network.

"Before the program, 60% of kids accepted to the math and science center were boys. After 10 years, 60% of kids accepted were girls. It certainly worked," Bigford said. 

Bigford also has been involved, and continues to be on the Baldwin Promise board. As a promise zone, graduates of Baldwin receive scholarship money allotted for higher education. 

ADVENTURE 

Bigford's interest in education and shaping youth also went hand-in-hand with his spirit for adventure, travel and exploration. 

"Since I was kid, I was into trips — bike trips, canoe trips, things like that," he said.

While in college, one summer he spent time marking timber, and a friend of his, a psychology major, spent the summer working in a psychiatry hospital which housed violent inmates. 

"We were both making pretty lousy money. The next summer, in 1972, we starting a nonprofit youth adventure company, and scheduled bicycle trips at such places as Martha's Vineyard, also in Nova Scotia and New Hampshire,” he said, also mentioning rafting trips on the Mississippi and Hudson rivers. 

In 1974, Bigford and his friend took the adventure to the next level, leading the first student rafting trip (800 miles) down the McKenzie River to the Arctic Ocean. 

"Thirty-four kids were involved in bike trips the previous year. We cherry picked kids who we thought could handle a harder trip,” he said. 

The 15 kids on the trip worked day and night building a raft 16 ft. wide and 26 ft. long with a small cabin. On the trip, they got food at half dozen trading posts along the river. On the trip they would see bear tracks, and got stuck in the mud two days. They ended up selling the raft for $300 for plane tickets to go to Tuktoyakutuch on the Arctic Ocean. Bigford said a guy told him no one ever brought a group of high school students down the river.

“We had bragging rights to be the first fools to go down the river,” he said. 

Bigford and his friend realized there wouldn’t be much money as tour guides. Bigford then moved out to Portland, Oregon, looking for "long lost love," but found Maude, another adventurer from Rhode Island, who became his wife to be. 

Among other trips, Bigford led caving trips inside Mt. St. Helens, two 29-day trips to Australia, 500 miles down the Eukon River with his son, and trips to Hawaii and other places. He mentioned the students who went weren’t only very smart, but also very well behaved.  behaved," 

PUBLIC SERVICE

Along with education and adventure, Bigford has been involved in public and civic services. As current supervisor of Sweetwater Township, he's been continuously elected over the past 43 years. He also was a member of the Lake County Township Officer's Association, for 35 years, serving as president of that group. He also has been a licensed assessor for the township for 25 years.

Bigford also has been very active with the Lake County Historical Society, and made the logging exhibit at the Lake County Historical Museum. He helped get the ball rolling for the historical society to have their own museum. 

"Charlie Turk (former conservation officer in Lake County) contacted me and thought he found an Indian dug-out canoe on Forest Service Land on the south branch of the Pere Marquette. Me and Bruce Micinski (president of LCHS) waded out into the river, and at first glance, it looked like a canoe, and for a while we thought we had something, but ended up not being so.” 

While the group thought they found a dug-out canoe, discussion began about a safe place to store it, and other antiques the society accumulated. The Forest Service said if they build a museum, they had the two forest service homes, which would be cheaper to give away than tear down. 

"The canoe ‘that wasn't’ was impetuous to building the museum," Bigford said. 

He spent nine years (three terms) on Lake County Community Foundation, until term-limited out. He's also been involved in groups to testify before the state legislature for gifted and talented issues, and to get the Pere Marquette classified as a natural river. 

ENVIRONMENT

Bigford’s interest in public service also ties in with his great interest and advocacy for the environment, especially the Pere Marquette River. He still serves on the Pere Marquette Watershed Council after 20 year, 10 of which he was president. He also is on the Natural River Zoning Review Board. He also is involved with the Lake County Riverside Property Association, which he said is sometimes in opposition with the natural river group he also serves on, usually involving property rights issues. 

Bigford also is on the Michigan Resource Stewards, which is mostly retired DNR management that “wants to stay in the fight.” This group gets involved politically to protect resources, and keep an eye on legislative proposals. 

Bigford put a conservation easement on his property, a signed legal document that assures his land on the Pere Marquette won't be sold and subdivided. While in college, he wrote an application for an open space easement, and was the second application approved by the state legislature in 1978. 

"They thought that was pretty good for a college kid," he said. "One hundred years from now we want the river to look like it does now. Conservation easements can keep this a reality." 

Bigford also has been with the Mason/Lake Conservation District for a number of years, also serving as chair. Recently, he dropped off the board, as it was getting to be too much while dealing with Parkinson’s, Bigford said. His service for the group didn't go unnoticed, however. Bigford was presented the Legacy Award for the district. 

"They don't give the legacy award out very often," he said. 

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

In addition to the four areas which are a driving force to Bigford, education, adventure, public service and environment, he also enjoys making maple syrup each year, hunting, and loves history, such as collecting maps, and finding and purchasing antique bottles. 

The Bigford’s have three children, Kyle, Sarah and Ellen. They also have Bandit, the English setter. Bigford always had English setters, 

"When I was three, and we still had the cabin at Wolf Lake, I went out to use the outhouse and our dog Peggy came with. I pushed over a rotted stump. Peggy was getting into it, too. We kept finding stumps to push over. I didn't know I was lost. My mother called the police and fire department. Peggy stuck with me the whole time. My mother didn't know whether to beat the snot out of me or hug me because I was found, maybe a bit of both," Bigford recalled. 

Bigford's favorite movie is "Masters and Commanders.” As for music, although Bigford prefers the sound of nature, he does like Willie Nelson. Pizza and chocolate ice cream are his favorite foods. 

Bigford has these words of wisdom to offer readers, "Do things when you can. Don't put things off."

Bigford's life is a true testament to this wisdom, with many years packed full of fun, adventure, learning and making a difference, especially as a proponent for youth and education.