He’s a natural: Pendergrass in the right spot

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Jessie Burchette
Bob Pendergrass has a simple goal in life ó don’t grow up. The 48-year-old supervisor of the Nature and Learning Center at Dan Nicholas Park is convinced he’s in the perfect job to reach the goal.
He’s surrounded by the wonders of nature and thousands of children who come to the park each year for nature programs and to see the bears, wolves, bald eagles and dozens of other birds and animals.
Pendergrass grew up in eastern Rowan, lived on a farm where his parents rented a home. His father, James, was fascinated with birds, spending free time watching them and often painting and drawing them.
“I got caught up … and it grew into something bigger,” Pendergrass says.
As a teenager in the late ’70s, he landed a summer job at Dan Nicholas Park tending the campground. He lived at there four nights and five days a week through the summer.
And it really wasn’t a job. “Like every 17-year-old, I had a car and needed gas and insurance. It was a great job,” Pendergrass says. “I never really wanted to work.”
He quickly became hooked on wildlife, but once at N.C. State, a dose of reality hit hard. He figured he couldn’t make a living working with wildlife ó and there was only one job available. It was filled.
So Pendergrass made an adult decision. He changed his major to engineering. That was a decision it took him years to overcome.
In 1983 in the midst of a recession, nobody was hiring engineers. He landed a job at Dan Nicholas Park working in the Nature Center.
And then another one of those adult decisions took him away. With an engineering degree, he figured it was the smart thing to do to take an engineering job. For one thing, it paid a lot more. At the time, the job paid $18,000 a year, compared to $11,000 at the park.
Pendergrass spent the next few years in industrial settings and later doing industrial sales.
But he still had ties to the park. He rented a house on the park grounds in 1991.
In 1995, Parks Director Jim Foltz offered him his perfect job, Nature Center supervisor.
This was Pendergrass’ chance to earn money, work close to home and unleash his childlike fascination for nature.
He’s worked to see the Nature Center expand, bring in dozens of new critters.
And there are old friends, including 31-year-old Nikki, one of the park’s original black bears.
“Nikki is looking gray these days … He’s the nicest bear personality-wise.”
A couple of years ago, Pendergrass and his wife, Darlene, and 13-year-old son, Liam, made a big move. They moved from the house at the park to a new house close to Gold Hill.
When he’s away from the park, Pendergrass’ hobbies still keep him close to nature.
He’s worn out several Subarus over the years on expeditions, including hunting trips out west.
He hunts with hawks. “You get to see things happen that millions of people never see. You’re watching nature happen.”
He’s seen strange things happen ó such as a squirrel outfox a red-tailed hawk.
Pendergrass is president of the N.C. Falconry Guild and has served on the board of directors of the national organization.
“It’s fascinating that you can develop a relationship with a wild animal,” he says. “They never change, they allow you to adjust to their world.”
The hunting rule is simple: If the hawk doesn’t catch anything, it comes back. “If it catches something, you have to go to them,” Pendergrass says.
Out among the animals, Pendergrass feels just like he did years ago when his father took him bird-watching.
His advice: “Don’t grow up, life’s too short.”
You may contact Jessie Burchette at 704-797-4254.