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
Birdwatchers' Hero to be
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
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
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
Do they know how much it hurt him
inside that he could not support his family the way he thought he
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
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
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