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Association director has history of success


March 24, 2004

BORREGO SPRINGS Betsy Knaak is proud to have botanical illustrations by the late Henry R. Mockel at the Borrego Desert Nature Center.

She said she was struck by their beauty when she visited the artist's widow in 1995.

"I saw these beautiful prints. This was something I always wanted to do for the Natural History Association, and now having the nature center, we were able to do this."

Knaak is the executive director of the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association, which operates the center.

The exhibit of Mockel's work runs through June 27.

"This is going to be very exciting," Knaak said. "I think people will respond to them . . . The art is so pretty."

Knaak, 50, started working for the Natural History Association in 1984 and was promoted to executive director in 1990. She works out of a spacious area that serves as offices, board room and storage area for research materials, around the corner from the Borrego Desert Nature Center at 652 Palm Canyon Drive.

In addition to arranging exhibits, Knaak is in charge of planning for the association and selecting merchandise for the nature center.

Many items for sale at the center relate to the desert, and most books are published by the local natural history association. There are books about the area's history as well as guides to birds and flowers found in the desert.

Part of Knaak's job entails answering tourists' questions.

"A lot of people stop in at the center to find out what there is to do in the desert," she said.

Knaak moved to Borrego Springs in 1978 for a seasonal job at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. She was studying park and recreation administration at San Diego State University.

She met the man who is now her husband, Manfred Knaak, here when he was a supervising state park ranger. They moved into the park residence at Tamarisk Grove soon after they were married in 1982.

"We had no telephone, only the park radio," Betsy Knaak said. "We trucked in drinking water. Sometimes Manfred would have to drive to the top of Yaqui Pass to call on the radio. We lived there for 10 years."

Their son, Alexander, was born while they lived in Tamarisk Grove. He is now 13.

Eventually, they moved into town to be closer to the schools.

"Those were wonderful years," she said of Tamarisk Grove. "There is wonderful bird watching in Tamarisk Grove. In the spring, we could bird-watch right from our breakfast room window. Sometimes I would see 20 or 25 species just over breakfast."

Manfred Knaak retired from the state park in 1997 and teaches anthropology at Imperial Valley College.

Betsy Knaak volunteers with other community groups. She is active with Friends of Borrego Springs Library, and she reads to students at the local elementary school.

"I go there once a week to read to the fourth-graders," she said. "I started volunteering at the elementary school when my son was in kindergarten."

She also was involved with starting the Borrego Springs Children's Center, a nonprofit licensed day care center, and she worked on the committee that brought about the Boys & Girls Club of Borrego Springs.

On weekends, Knaak teaches Sunday school at Community United Methodist Church in Borrego Springs.

For information about the Mockel exhibit, call (760) 767-3098.

Ruth Lepper is a freelance writer based in Ramona. A town focus for Borrego Springs, Julian or other backcountry towns is published each Wednesday. Do you have a story idea for one of these communities? For special events, please alert us four weeks in advance. We work ahead! Contact Julie Pendray at (760) 737-7562 or

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