Photo by Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion Dan Pascucci, the education specialist for the Kenai Watershed Forum, treats the crowd to a rendition of "Sea Stars Are Not Starfish" on Friday, Aug. 5, 2016 at Soldotna Creek Park in Soldotna, Alaska. After 10 years, Pascucci will leave his position with the local conservation organization to take a job in Kentucky.

Photo by Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion Dan Pascucci, the education specialist for the Kenai Watershed Forum, treats the crowd to a rendition of "Sea Stars Are Not Starfish" on Friday, Aug. 5, 2016 at Soldotna Creek Park in Soldotna, Alaska. After 10 years, Pascucci will leave his position with the local conservation organization to take a job in Kentucky.

Kenai says farewell to conservation activist

KENAI — Thousands of kids who went to school in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District will never mistakenly call a sea star a “starfish” again.

When you ask a local fifth-grader about why the familiar sea creature isn’t a starfish — after all, that’s the name most people call it — she may burst out into song: “Sea stars are not starfish. Sea stars are not vertebrates. Starfish? Never heard of it!”

Somewhere across the room, an adult may chime in another verse. The educational songs, written and performed for a decade by Kenai Watershed Forum Education Specialist Dan “Dirty D” Pascucci, have found traction among listeners of all ages and interests. Pascucci, who’s been a local fixture with the Kenai Watershed Forum since 2006, has tromped around streams teaching school groups about water quality monitoring, lit up classrooms with kids singing along about staying off the dunes and led hikes in the Peterson Bay area across Kachemak Bay.

Nothing lasts forever, though. Pascucci and his family plan to soon move to Kentucky for another job, and in farewell, the Kenai Watershed Forum and community feted him Friday at Soldotna Creek Park with performances, memories and a barbecue.

“Who are we going to turn to when someone says ‘starfish’ now, Dan?” sang Mike Morgan jokingly from the stage in an impromptu tribute.

A dozen attendees walked around the rainy park sporting yellow and orange tie-dye shirts adorned with a cartoon image of Pascucci in his famous full-body starfish suit, complete with enraptured kids around him. Several local musicians performed and Pascucci himself took the stage for an encore of a few favorites, including a rap admonishing people to get off the dunes — “without the dunes the bluffs will be screwed, and you will too” — and a bouncy number with riddles about local animals, complete with corny jokes.

The programs Pascucci brought to the Kenai Peninsula will make a lasting change for the kids who went through them, said Terri Carter, a teacher at Soldotna Montessori Charter School. Many of the kids who have gone through programs with him are learning how to take ownership of their environment, whether they go on to careers in environmental work or not.

“He just has this gift. The kids who have gone through his programs have already been doing work on (improving the environment),” Carter said. “I can’t wait to see the impact it has.”

Outside his work with the schools and the Kenai Watershed Forum, others may know him for colorful roles with the Kenai Performers or through his voice on the local radio station KDLL during his show “Musicology.” Sally Cassano, president of the Kenai Performers board, said her favorite memory of Pascucci is during a scene in the Kenai Performers presentation of “Oliver!” when he danced on stage in the play tavern The Three Cripples.

“He’s contributed hours upon hours to Kenai Performers,” Cassano said. “Performing, in setbuilding, in all that … his absence will be felt.”

Pascucci has been recognized for his work over the years, but several others added their own praise on Friday night. Soldotna Mayor Pete Sprague made a resolution honoring Pascucci for his work on the Kenai River watershed, which Sprague read on stage.

The Kenai Watershed Forum added its own lauding as well. Water Quality Specialist Branden Bornemann said he used to joke with Pascucci that people probably have to die to have something local named for them, but “we don’t want Dan to die.” So instead, the future attendees to the Kenai Watershed Forum’s summer camp will know the organization’s yurt as the “Dirty D” Yurt.

The Kachemak Heritage Land Trust also named Pascucci the first recipient of the “King Maker” award Friday night. He is the first recipient of the award on the peninsula. A new award, the program recognizes individuals in communities whose actions contribute to better habitat conditions for salmon over time. The program is administered by all the land trusts in the various areas of Alaska, but Pascucci is the first to receive it locally.

“His love for all things salmon is evident in his work,” Kachemak Heritage Land Trust Communications and Development Coordinator Denise Jantz wrote in an email. “His ability to translate science into plain language makes it accessible to all. Thousands of children and adults have benefitted from his work as a teacher/naturalist with the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and as the Education Specialist at the Kenai Watershed Forum, planting the conservation seed for many as future stewards of our lands.”

Representatives from the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust presented Pascucci with the award Friday, nodding to a printed proverb on a shirt they presented him with: “Small actions make big salmon.” He doffed his characteristic neon orange Carhartt hat for a moment to try on the black hat they presented him with.

However, the orange hat soon resumed its place.

• Elizabeth Earl is a reporter for the Kenai Peninsula Clarion. She can be reached at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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