‘Dine & Discuss’ at Cyrano’s Cafe shines light on Webster Groves


In a colorfully-decorated and sunlit room at Cyrano’s Cafe, nature enthusiasts and Webster Groves locals enjoyed a Friday lunch while chatting about all things Webster.

Photo by Molly Foust. (Left to right) Don Corrigan, Jean Ponzi, Charles Hoessle and Richard Thoma seated together during the panel at Cyrano’s Cafe on Sept. 16.

At noon on Sept. 16, Cyrano’s Cafe in Webster Groves hosted a “Dine & Discuss” panel moderated by Don Corrigan – Webster University journalism professor and contributor to the Webster-Kirkwood Times newspaper. Panelists included Missouri Botanical Garden Earthways Center Green Resources manager and KDHX “Earthworms” podcast host Jean Ponzi, emeritus Saint Louis Zoo Director Charles Hoessle and Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS) historian and past President Richard Thoma.

Panelists discussed topics from Corrigan’s new book “Amazing Webster Groves,” which profiles important figures in the Webster Groves community. The panel focused on superstars from the world of environmentalism and conservation with Webster roots.

Ponzi told the story of J.B. Lester – former photographer for the Webster Groves High School Echo newspaper and photo editor for the Webster Journal  – who became the original publisher of “The Healthy Planet,” a Webster Groves-centered environmental magazine that emphasizes the connection between nature and human health.

Since 1989, Ponzi has shared a similar message in her “Earthworms” blog, where she interviews environmental experts. She notes how nature resembles human interaction, especially the social ecosystem of Webster Groves.

“Ecology is all about relationships … it took me a while to get to that understanding, but I think that’s what really attracted me to it,” Ponzi said during the panel.

Ponzi’s department, the Earthways Center, promotes sustainability and conservation of natural and energy resources, emphasizing humanity’s role in securing a better future while meeting our current generation’s needs.

“Our tagline is ‘sustainable solutions,’ and the Garden’s mission is to discover and share knowledge about plants and their environment in order to preserve and enrich life. And we [Earthways Center] are the ‘environment’ part of that,” Ponzi said. “We run a lot of programs in the community. We work with school children, colleges, universities, businesses, municipalities and the general public.”

As for the world of nature studies and appreciation, WGNSS, which started in 1920 as a response to regional deforestation, promotes the education and appreciation of numerous natural sciences, including botany, entomology and ornithology. Although it started in Webster Groves, the organization has expanded to the rest of the St. Louis area and even across the nation, totaling over 400 members.

Thoma detailed the lives of three historical WGNSS members, including founder and anthropologist Alfred F. Satterthwaite and conservationists James Earl Comfort and James F. Comfort, who believed in the importance of getting involved with nature as a community, which laid the foundation for the group’s mission.

With its Nature Photography Club and Nature Book Club, field trips, “Nature Notes” newsletter and scholarship programs, WGNSS provides numerous opportunities for the community to educate themselves on the environment. Thoma said they host 10-15 nature-related events per month, including an upcoming talk from Webster English professor Karla Armbruster on Wednesday, Oct. 5 at the Webster Groves Library.

WGNSS also contributes to environmental activism, including a past letter-writing campaign and participation in a lawsuit against environmental degradation caused by construction in St. Genevieve.

Focusing on the impact of education in preserving wildlife, Hoessle discussed the work of late Bronx Zoo Director and head of the New York Zoological Society Bill Conway, as well as zoologists George Shaller and David Norman, all of whom were locals and inspired by their Webster Groves High School biology teachers.

Hoessle said educating people about giant, fascinating animals or “charismatic megafauna” helps them learn to appreciate all wildlife, which is his philosophy at the Saint Louis Zoo.

“You can’t get people excited about little, insignificant things. But if you pick up the charismatic animal, a rhinoceros, the gorilla, the Giant Panda, it requires an enormous reserve,” Hoessle said. “And if you can protect that entire reserve, you’re protecting all the insignificant animals and plants within that area.”

For those interested in wildlife conservation, Hoessle recommends joining the Saint Louis Zoo Association. With over 40 conservation programs internationally, the Saint Louis Zoo supports endangered species and habitats as well as indigenous groups in corresponding areas.

To access more information on WGNSS and to purchase a membership, visit wgnss.org. To learn more about the Missouri Botanical Garden and Green Resources center, go to mobot.org. For a detailed account of conservation efforts at the Saint Louis Zoo, see stlzoo.org.

More information on “Amazing Webster Groves” can be found on its publisher’s website, reedypress.com.

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Molly Foust (she/her) spring 2023 Editor-In-Chief.