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Fred Pianalto, 1927-1996
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Fred Pianalto, 1927 - 1996, was one of the first people to discover the Terns utilizing the river, and spent many years observing and protecting them. Despite debilitating arthritis, Fred, who had special permission, would drive his pickup along the bike trail and set up his scope to watch over the birds. Over the years he became a fixture at Riverparks, and became one of Tulsa Audubon's greatest ambassadors to the Public. Thousands of people learned about the Terns and other wildlife along the river from Fred.

Fred Pianalto Remembered


Sunday June 7, 1998 family and friends of Fred F. Pianalto gathered at the Arkansas River near 15th Street. Tulsa Audubon, in association with the Riverparks, purchased and dedicated a park bench to the memory of Fred. The bench, along with a commemorative plaque, is located where Fred frequently parked his truck to survey the river. Whether he was scoping the island where the Least Terns nested in the summer, just checking out the water level, or talking to people passing by, this is where you would find him. Fred's daughter, Peggy, spoke briefly, thanking all for coming, and for honoring the memory of her father. TAS President Dody Nesbit conducted the ceremony, welcoming a representative from the Mayor's Office, and recognizing the presence of special guests and family. Dick Sherry spoke of being Fred's "partner in crime," and recalled some of the notorious times he spent with Fred. Tulsa Audubon will always remember Fred for his determination in obtaining protection of habitat for the Least Tern and other species. We will also never forget his courage and grace in the face of a crippling and debilitating disease. All of us present could have shared a special memory of Fred, but perhaps the most eloquent were the voices of the Least Terns screaming in the sky over their island, going about the business of nesting, feeding and flying over the site that Fred compelled us to save.


Services Set Today for `Birdman'
Tulsa World 11/16/1996

Frederick F. "Fred" Pianalto, the "Birdman of River Parks," died Thursday. He was 69. Graveside services will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at St. Joseph Cemetery in Tontitown, Ark., under the direction of Sisco Funeral Home. Pianalto, a naturalist, was credited with helping to establish a Nature Conservancy preserve near downtown Tulsa. He had been named one of the Nature Conservancy's 10 top volunteers nationally and was presented with the Oak Leaf Award, the Nature Conservancy's highest national honor for volunteer service, for a 15-year vigil over the interior least tern, an endangered bird that nests in the Arkansas River. He also received recognition from the Oklahoma Wildlife Federation, the Oklahoma Nature Conservancy, the Oklahoma Ornithological Society and the national Nature Conservancy. Pianalto, a former Tulsa resident, has lived in Springdale, Ark., for the past four years. He was a retired electric utility lineman and served in the military during World War II and the Korean War. He was a member of the Audubon Society and was a member of the St. Joseph Catholic Church of Tonitown, Ark. He is survived by one daughter, Peggy Pianalto of Tulsa; and two sisters, Vivian Pianalto Walker and Virginia Pianalto Walker, both of Springdale, Ark. Friends are making memorial donations to the Arthritis Foundation, Arkansas Chapter, 6213 Lee Avenue, Little Rock, Ark. 72205, or the Tulsa Audubon Society Memorial Fund.

Birdwatchers' Hero to be Honored
Tulsa World, 05/31/1998

There's one now. Peggy Pianalto points out the interior least tern, her finger aimed over the Arkansas River, trying to trace the bird's unpredictable flight.

"Do you see it?"

If her father were still here, he'd have already spotted the sprite-like bird. His binoculars would be propped up on the ends of his sculpted arthritic fingers, nubby and jointless.

He'd have the bird in his sights, watching its bent white wings beating over the surface of the water like boomerangs. He knew these least terns better than anyone, and he'd be ready for this one when it suddenly broke upward, away from the water into the sky, left, right, then down again.

If you were curious, he'd help you spot the bird. He'd share his spotting scope.

But if you were reckless and wandering out in the nesting areas along sandbars in the Arkansas River, his blood pressure would be up and he'd be hollering.

FRED PIANALTO would do whatever he could to protect the rare birds, persisting in his vigilance despite the pain that pulsed through his replaced hip joints, his rebuilt knees and the fused vertebrae in his neck.

"Do you see it?" his 44-year-old daughter says, her eyes on the swift white bird.

She sits on the River Parks bench that will be dedicated in memory of her father, near 15th Street and Riverside Drive.

This is a good place to think about her father -- out here by the river, where people who speak of him as their inspiration will come to dedicate the park bench at 2 p.m. June 7 in a public ceremony led by the Tulsa Audubon Society.

Most of the people who will come know that Fred Pianalto's body ached from the rheumatoid arthritis that virtually crippled him. His daughter wonders: Do they know how much it hurt?

Do they know how much it hurt him inside that he could not support his family the way he thought he should?

After serving in World War II and the Korean War, he trained for a career as a telephone lineman. When his legs began to go, he gave that up and trained to be a radio technician, only to have his hands betray him.

These are the things Peggy Pianalto thinks about -- how her father found out from a doctor at age 36 that the disease was carving away his cartilage, turning his body into an engine without motor oil. Before long, he was told, he'd be in a wheelchair. Before long he'd be bedridden. At least that's what doctors said.

She sits out here with her grown child's perspective, understanding better why he began to rise so early in the morning. Sometimes he'd be off to watch the least terns. Sometimes it would be to watch the bald eagles out toward Keystone Dam.

If he'd just had one of his many surgeries and couldn't even make it to his truck, then he'd be out watching the birds from his back yard.

"This was something he could do for his feeling of self-worth," Peggy Pianalto says. "He came from a generation where he was supposed to support his family. When he couldn't do that as well, this was his reason for getting up."

There is some embarrassment in her voice, remembering how the morning excursions seemed to come too early for her when she was a teen-ager. She admits to a lack of appreciation back then and to youthful impatience. "I wanted to see a bird now."

Other people began to prize FRED PIANALTO's work. The Tulsa Audubon Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy all were relying on his bird counts as he kept track every spring of the new least terns as they arrived along the Arkansas River in early May at the end of their annual migration from as far away as Peru.

He became the staunchest advocate for the endangered species and led efforts that had nesting areas in the river sandbars set aside in 1987 as protected wildlife preserves.

He was recognized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for his work. The Nature Conservancy honored him with some of its highest national awards for stewardship.

Peggy Pianalto knows now what her father's work meant to other birdwatchers, from veteran conservationists to young people newly curious about birds.

He was the man longtime friend and fellow Audubon Society member Dick Sherry called his "inspiration."

"He was a scrapper, a fighter," Sherry said.

When FRED PIANALTO's truck rolled along the River Parks to another vantage point, people stopped and looked, some of them taking a peek through his spotting scopes. Newspaper features and television reports telling his story helped spread his message of conservation. "He was a roving educator," Sherry said.

And to all of those who knew what pain he endured to keep at his work, said Tulsa Audubon Society President Dody Nesbit, he was more than an educator.

"He was a hero."

Year after year he returned to the river, despite repeated surgeries, never staying in the wheelchair, never staying in bed, putting off everything that doctors had said would come to pass.

He couldn't venture too far from his truck. When he went on excursions with other birdwatchers, he'd go so far and then set up his folding chair and sit while the others wandered into the deep woods.

"I know," his daughter says, "that he would have given anything to be able to go into the woods."

In the spring of 1992, when he was 65, FRED PIANALTO finally decided that he had to give up his post at the river and move to Springdale, Ark., where his sisters could help take care of him.

He had defied the doctors' gloomy reports for more than two decades before the pain became too much even for him. When he died in November 1996, he was eulogized as the bird man of the River Parks.

Out on the sandbar, geese have wandered into the nesting area of the terns. The terns, which look like darting white specks at this distance, dive and swoop, working to drive the geese out and protect the fragile eggs in the sand.

The spring's new generation is waiting to hatch.






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