Peoria's bird man says he's been lucky to have 'A Charmed Life'

Ryan Ori

Updating Bert Princen’s autobiography is difficult work.

Diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and having withstood several blood clots, Princen underwent a long series of radiation treatments that left him weakened.

The 78-year-old is hooked up to an oxygen tank and has spent part of the past week hospitalized to remove fluid from his lungs. It is exhausting to walk from one room to another in the Peoria home he shares with wife wife, Greet.

Depending on the effectiveness of treatments, the beloved scientist’s prognosis ranges from six months on up to the more optimistic life expectancy of five years.

Despite those odds, the Netherlands native has never considered changing the title of his self-published book: "A Charmed Life."

"I’ve never had a lousy day in my life," Princen said. "The title of the book there says it all. I’ve enjoyed every day of my life. I wouldn’t want to do any of them over again.

"When the verdict fell after the biopsy, (Greet) and I had a good talk here. We decided that, hey, we are going to enjoy life as much as we can. It may be short, it may be long — you never know. But why would you worry about that? I’ve had a beautiful life. I’m more worried about her staying behind. I’m not afraid of dying. I’ve lived 78 great years."

Central Illinois students and nature lovers seem to agree.

"He’s really been Mr. Science for this community for many, many years," said Mike Rucker, chairman of the Peoria Academy of Science’s 19-year-old Science Treasure Hunt.

"Anybody who is as enthusiastic for anything as he is, and goes out of his way to make the community better — this is a quality-of-life thing," Rucker said. "That takes time. That’s the significance of the kind of things he does."

The Netherlands

Lambertus Henricus Princen, who has earned acclaim in the United States as a scientist, outdoors enthusiast, bird expert, musician and educator, and is known to many as "the Bird Man of Peoria," was born in the city of Eindhoven in 1930.

Princen’s youth there included glimpses of the Hindenburg airship flying between Germany and the United States, Nazi Germany’s invasion and occupation of his country, and subsequent Allied bombings.

But when Princen speaks of his youth, it is to describe his early fascination with nature. By age 7, he was saving his weekly allowances to purchase books about flora and fauna.

"My dad was perfectly happy just admiring nature," Princen said. "I wanted to know more. When I was 10 or 11 years old, I bought a book (several inches) thick of all the plants in Holland, a determination guide to find out the species of a plant."

Today that guide is among the books stacked throughout his home on High Point Terrace.

Books and nature weren’t the only thing to catch Princen’s eye as a teenager. One day while walking home from school, Princen and a friend flirted with two girls who rode by on their bicycles. The girls looked back at the boys and crashed into each other.

The boys helped repair the damaged bikes and arranged dates. Both couples, including Princen and the former Greet Wiesen, went on to get married. The couples remain in touch.

Greet (pronounced "great") initially was impressed by the musical talents of Princen — who went on to play viola and violin in the Peoria Pops Orchestra — but soon saw another side of her future husband.

"He had to go catch frogs for his snakes and lizards, so here we went with a bucket," she said. "I grew up with it, so I’m not afraid of snakes."

After completing his Ph.D. work in the Netherlands, Princen and his wife of three months moved to the United States for a post-doctoral chemistry fellowship at the University of Southern California.

After the fellowship and a Dutch military stint, Princen accepted what was supposed to be a two-year position in physical chemistry at the USDA facility now known as the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research.

That was in 1960. The Princens never left and have lived in their current home — in a wooded area that attracts a wide variety of birds and other wildlife — since 1962.

The Princens became U.S. citizens in 1966.

Well-versed and versatile

Princen’s work at Peoria’s prestigious ag lab led to breakthroughs in research in the areas of water-based paints, and later in new crop development in the United States. He became director of the lab in 1984, and, after retiring on his 60th birthday in 1990, he continued sharing his scientific expertise by speaking to many international congresses.

The Princens’ only child, Norman, also pursued a career in science. He is chief engineer for Boeing Phanton Works’ innovative blended-wing X-48B aircraft, which when completed is expected to be larger than a 747 and consume one-third less fuel.

Most Peorians know Princen as a teacher of science to the everyman. With his white hair, white moustache and distinctive Dutch accent, Princen is recognizable to groups ranging from grade-school children to retirees — with all of whom he has shared his youthful enthusiasm for wildlife.

Princen has served as president, or on the board of directors, for a wide range of organizations that includes the Peoria Academy of Science, Peoria Orchid Society, Peoria Audubon Society and Illinois State Academy of Science.

"The Peoria Academy of Science, he wrote the newsletter for years and years," said Mike Miller, chief naturalist at Forest Park Nature Center and past president of the Peoria Academy of Science and the Peoria Audubon Society. "It wasn’t an easy job. It listed all the activities of the six sections of the academy — Audubon, botany, herpetology, entomology, astronomy and geology — and he was active in all of those sections.

"I don’t know anybody else who did that. He went to all of their meetings and wrote the newsletters. That’s unheard of."

For more than a decade, Princen has written a column for Adventure Sports Outdoors. He lists seven pages of publications and patents.

Princen speaks Dutch, English, German and French.

"What I see in Bert is somebody who has an insatiable appetite for knowledge," Miller said. "He must have one of the best minds for retention and recall that I’ve ever seen. He sees something once and he knows it, and he can recall it 30 years later. I think that type of person wants to learn as much as they can, because they can recall as much as they learn. He’s got a brilliant mind for that."

Princen also has organized and conducted bird counts for decades.

"He has touched thousands of people in Illinois with his knowledge and his enthusiasm for natural history — especially birds and bird life here in Illinois," said John Mullen, assistant chief naturalist at Forest Park Nature Center and a past Audubon president. "He’s not an ivory-tower sort. He’s plainspoken and not a pretentious guy."

Usually traveling with his wife, Princen has visited about 40 countries to see 2,867 varieties of birds and to collect about 250 types of orchids that now occupy — along with six turtles — a greenhouse the couple built onto the house in 1973.

He has visited every continent except Antarctica. On bird-watching trips, Princen films travelogue-style videos that he presents to students and local organizations.

"I think I’m just a ham," Princen said of his many presentations. "No, really, it has given me so much pleasure through the years, and I want to share that pleasure with others. You should see the evaluations I always get. People just love the programs."

‘The next one’

How does a man spend decades vigorously pursuing so many interest, and sharing them with others?

"It’s sheer energy," Rucker said. "He’s just such a dynamic, hard worker. He’s always moving. He never stops moving and motivating and getting things done."

Just last year, Princen and his son hiked the Andes at 14,000 feet. Shortly after that trip, he was diagnosed with cancer.

Although he speaks optimistically about facing cancer, Princen admits frustration with a newfound shortage of energy.

"It bothers me, because I’ve never walked stairs one step at a time," Princen said. "It’s always two or three steps at a time, even well into older age. I would jump out of a chair, and now I have trouble getting up. I have to learn to do things slower, I guess."

Although he was unable to play as large a role as usual in helping Rucker put on the 19th annual Science Treasure Hunt, Princen mailed out prize notifications from among hundreds of "passports" completed by area children.

"The last time I saw Bert he had a big stack of those little booklets in front of him," Mullen said. "He wasn’t feeling very good, he’s gone through heck recently, and here he was working away on those things. Even with blood clots and cancer and everything else, where’s his energy going? As a servant to kids, getting them involved in science."

Said Rucker: "Greet said he would hardly be able to drag himself out of bed and over to the computer, but he was sitting there entering these names and printing out the labels. He insisted I leave the list and kept saying, ‘I’ll do it.’ "

Because of Bert’s health, the Princens skipped their annual trip to the Netherlands this year. Princen is hopeful his health will allow for future adventures.

"The funny thing is, all these people ask me, ‘What is the best bird that you saw?’ " Princen said. "I always say, ‘The next one.’ I’m always looking forward to the next one."

Ryan Ori can be reached at (309) 686-3264