by Lou Mancinelli
The Wissahickon Valley Park is a local treasure that isn’t hidden on any secret map. The preservation and conservation of the park are in large part executed by staff members and volunteers of the Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW). Even corporations like FedEx put time in the valley repairing streams damaged by storms.
While the FOW staff members and volunteers and countless others serve as stewards for the physical aspect of the park, its board members work to preserve the Wissahickon from behind the scenes.
One such member is Chestnut Hill resident Will Whetzel, who is currently the chair of the FOW governance committee.
Whetzel, 63, went from selling advertisements for Rolling Stone magazine in Manhattan in the mid-1970s to investment banking for media groups in the ’80s and on to a regional bank in Pittsburgh and volunteering in the non-profit sector in the ’90s.
He is also on the board of the Nature Conservancy, an organization that, while working on conservation issues at both a regional and global scale, shares with the FOW the understanding of the importance of partnering with community organizations and other non-profits to get things done through a results-focused commitment to environmental stewardship.
The path of Whetzel’s life and career has clearly been influenced by family members — parents, grandparents, siblings — who have been involved in non-profit work throughout their lives. His father was the president of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy for many years, and his brother is currently a board member. While president, his father worked across the state on environmental issues with his friend Tom Dolan, a long-time board member of FOW.
Whetzel was raised in Pittsburgh and attended Trinity College in Connecticut, graduating in 1972. After a few years in Boston, he moved to Manhattan and worked in advertising and sales at Rolling Stone, helping the magazine’s owner and management launch Outside, a magazine about the outdoors.
Throughout the ‘80s, Whetzel worked in mergers and acquisitions in New York, specializing in publishing and media. At firms like Henry Ansbacher and Kidder Peabody, he “often aided British buyers interested in expanding into the U.S. newspaper and publishing market.”
By the late 80s, Whetzel had married and was the father of two young girls. In 1990 he relocated to Pittsburgh and shifted his work focus to regional investment banking. At this stage in his life, away from New York, the idea of giving back and helping others kicked in, and he immersed himself in volunteer work. Before Whetzel left the Steel City, he had served as chairman or board member of a number of non-profit organizations including the New Leadership Board of the Pittsburgh Symphony, The Women’s Center and Shelter, the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force and others.
In 1999, he met Kim Pearson, who lured him to Chestnut Hill; they were married the following year. (Whetzel and his first wife had gotten divorced.) After a short stint at Paine Webber, Will was invited to join the boutique investment advisory firm Mitchell Sinkler & Starr in center city, where he still works today. The firm provides personalized advisory services to individuals, families and — no surprise — non-profit organizations.
Whetzel quickly fell in love with the personality of Chestnut Hill as well, and knew he wanted to become involved in the community in a meaningful way. Living next to the Wissahickon Park and learning about the considerable scope of the activities and mission of the Friends of the Wissahickon, it didn’t take long for him to sign on.
He first served on the development committee, working on projects like the Asleep At The Wheel fundraisers. In 2009 he moved to his current position on the governance committee, which helps with issues like board development and the oversight of numerous operational decisions.
The recent completion of a five-year strategic plan has Whetzel and his fellow board members thinking about how to leverage partnerships with other organizations, build membership and increase volunteerism to better serve FOW’s stewardship goals.
Rebuilding park trails, educating people about conservation issues, protecting signature places and managing a challenged habitat are all part of protecting the land and water of the Wissahickon. “These efforts are critically important for our whole region’s health and prosperity; the park itself logs 1.1 million active outdoor recreation visits each year,” he said.
In addition, water from the Wissahickon is delivered to the taps of over 350,000 Philadelphians. At the heart of FOW’s programming is the unchanging, 90-year-old mission to “to preserve the natural beauty and wildness of the Wissahickon Valley and stimulate public interest therein.”
In fact, Whetzel’s work with FOW gives him an opportunity to combine his love for the environment with his tireless effort to preserve it. “If we can all slow down enough to work together and focus on the things around us that are important,” he said, talking about board members and volunteers and those who visit the park, “that’s how we can get things done.”
It sounds hokey. It also sounds true.
For more information about Friends of the Wissahickon, visit www.fow.org.