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George R. Arnold: Founding 'grandfather' of Illinois bike trails

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 19, 2010 - George Robert Arnold, a founding faculty member of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and the man with the vision for more than a hundred miles of bucolic bike trails that meander through the state, died at his home in Edwardsville on Friday (May 14) from complications of a stroke. He was 93.

Services for Mr. Arnold, associate professor emeritus of civil engineering who biked to work at SIU-E each day for many years, will be at 11 a.m. Thursday (May 20) at Weber and Rodney Funeral Home in Edwardsville.

Ahead of His Time

Mr. Arnold's respect for nature began on his family's farm in Carbondale where they grew apples and peaches.

"He was way ahead of his time," said his nephew, Allen Arnold.

By the time the "green movement" began to gain momentum in the 1970s, Mr. Arnold had hit full stride.

Mr. Arnold was instrumental in creating the first environmental studies program at SIU in the 1960s. In 1970, he worked with Illinois State Sen. Sam Vadalabene to draft the legislation that created bikeways throughout Illinois that now span more than a hundred miles and connection to Missouri via the Chain of Rocks Bridge and the McKinley Bridge bikeway.

Among the first trails, said Roger Kramer, a dedicated cyclist and design editor at the Belleville News-Democrat, was the path along the Great River Road between Alton and Grafton that was named for Vadalabene, the lawmaker from Edwardsville who died in 1994.

Around the same time, Kramer said, Mr. Arnold pushed to create the 2.8 mile Delyte W. Morris bike trail on the SIU-E campus and the Vadalabene Nature Trail (now known as the MCT Trail) between Edwardsville and Pontoon Beach. Both trails were built, in part, on former Illinois Terminal Railroad railbeds.

"It was clear he was a major player and his contributions were crucial to the development of MCT (Madison County Transit) bikeways," Kramer said. "The odds are they wouldn't be there without him laying the groundwork."

Kramer's sentiments were echoed by Jerry Kane, MCT managing director.

"George Arnold was truly someone who was dedicated to green space preservation," Kane said.

Bikeways, Kane said, are "linear parks." And, he noted, the good thing about linear parks is that they can connect people to other kinds of parks that they might otherwise not know exist. This is what Mr. Arnold visualized.

Allen Arnold said his eulogy for his uncle will include words from Sen. Vadalabene: "If I'm known as the father of Illinois bikeways, George Arnold is the grandfather."

The senator and the professor were so-dubbed for their shared dream that spawned what is now the extensive Madison County Transit trails system.

Becoming an Environmental Leader

Mr. Arnold was born Sept. 11, 1916, in Carbondale to William Edward and Elizabeth H. Scott Arnold. After graduating from University High School, he received a bachelor's degree in education, physics, and mathematics in 1939 and a master's degree in physics in 1940, both from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. In 1964, he earned his doctorate in environmental science from Washington University, and proudly shared that he was the first person to receive a doctorate from Washington University in air pollution.


Mr. Arnold retired in 1984 as professor of physics and environmental science after working 10 years at SIU-Carbondale and 17 years at SIU-Edwardsville.

From 1940 to 1942, Mr. Arnold taught classes at Kemper Military School in Boonville, Mo., before enlisting in the U.S. Naval Reserve, where he served from 1942 to 1946. During World War II, he was an ensign at the Great Lakes (Ill.) Naval Station and was later stationed at the Glenview (Ill.) Naval Air Station, where he taught physics, navigation and meteorology to cadets. During his military service, he studied aerology, the branch of meteorology related to air, at Annapolis. He was later assigned to the U.S. naval station in Port of Spain, Trinidad, West Indies, and subsequently to the naval station in Corpus Christi, Texas.

In 1946, Mr. Arnold went back to his roots, working as a partner in Arnold Orchards in Carbondale.

He returned to teaching in 1953 at Southeast Missouri State College (now University) in Cape Girardeau. That fall, Mr. Arnold joined the faculty at SIU-Carbondale to teach physics. He was later assigned to the old Alton and East St. Louis campuses of SIU, becoming an SIU-Edwardsville founding faculty member when the campus was established in 1957.

When Mr. Arnold began his doctoral studies at Washington University in 1960, he also began teaching there. Shortly after receiving his doctorate in 1964, he became chief of industrial hygiene and air pollution services for the St. Louis County Health Department and was later named chief of technical services for the Missouri Air Conservation Commission in Jefferson City. He returned to SIU-E in 1967 as a research associate for what was then known as public administration and metropolitan affairs. He later became a faculty member of what was then known as the technology and engineering division.

Mr. Arnold's interests outside of academia never wavered from environmental concerns with a focus on transportation.


By 1970, he was chair of the metropolitan St. Louis Transportation Conference and a member of the Great River Road Committee, two groups charged with studying transportation needs in the St. Louis region. In the early 1970s, he began lobbying for more mass transit opportunities in the St. Louis area and became an early supporter of a light rail system.

Ever ahead of this time, Mr. Arnold predicted the "telecommunications explosion" and declared his belief that cable television would become an important educational tool as well as the coming wave in recreational programming.


In 1986, as a member of the Lewis and Clark Society, Mr. Arnold decided that a fitting commemoration for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial would be to build a premier visitors center. With the help of U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello and then-Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, Mr. Arnold was successful in snagging $7 million to fund the construction of the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center. The center formally opened on Dec. 12, 2002, in Hartford and attracted 185,000 visitors in its first year.

"He woke everybody up about the 200th anniversary," Kane said. "His legacy will be in many areas of our region for many generations to enjoy. It's a lesson to younger people that you can improve the quality of life for others."

He failed in one legacy attempt: He wanted the U.S. to adopt the metric system. His interest in metrics was rooted in his scientific study of air pollution and his belief that air quality measurements needed to be consistently recorded throughout the world.

Pollution close to home partly fueled his concerns. At one time, he called the the Metro East, "the second most polluted spot in the state of Illinois." He testified before state committees on several occasions in the 1960s and '70s to help encourage legislators to work toward cleaner air.

Service and Honors

Mr. Arnold had served as president of the Lewis & Clark Society, acting president of MCCA, executive secretary of IMRPAC, chairman of the Illinois Corridor, co-chair of Illinois-Missouri Trails Coalition, archivist for Marquette-Joliet Tercentennial, chairman of Piasa Palisades Sierra Group, president of the Vadalabene Nature Trail Volunteers, secretary of the Grassroots Trailnet Committee, member of Mississippi River Corridor Study Commission and a member of the MRPC.

Among Mr. Arnold's numerous honors was the Edwardsville Meritorious Service Award he received in 1959. In 2003, he received SIU-E'S Distinguished Service Award for his lifelong dedication to the environment. He was honored by Madison County Transit in 2000 for the role he played in paving the way for a world-class bikeway system.

"He seemed very excited that people remembered him," MCT's managing director Kane told the Belleville News-Democrat at the time. "He was almost brought to tears the day we gave him the award."

Mr. Arnold married the former Mildred L. Caviness on Dec. 22, 1956, in Pinckneyville. She preceded him in death on Jan. 11, 1997. Mrs. Arnold was a communications professional at SIU Edwardsville for nearly four decades. The two had no children, but often welcomed students into their home.

Mr. Arnold was also preceded in death by three brothers: Clyde Arnold, Clarence Arnold and Ralph Arnold.

He is survived by a sister, Marian Calnon of Columbia City, Ore., and many nieces and nephews.

Visitation will be from 4-8 p.m. Wednesday (May 19) at Weber and Rodney Funeral Home in Edwardsville, 304 North Main Street.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Thursday at Weber and Rodney Funeral Home. Interment with military honors will be at Woodlawn Cemetery.

Memorials may be made to Madison County Transit (Note: "For Illinois Bikeways"), P.O. Box 7500, Granite City, Ill. 62040-7500; the Lewis & Clark Interpretative Center, One Lewis and Clark Trail, Hartford, Ill. 62048, or VFW Post 1299, 803 Sheridan Ave., Edwardsville, Ill. 62025.

"Personally, I think a most appropriate way to remember George is to name the MCT Nature Trail after him," Kramer blogged, adding "Thank you, George, for all you did for bicycling in Madison County!"Some information for this story derived from Mr. Arnold's self-written obituary.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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