After almost three decades of trail building and maintenance, Dean and Jayne Paynter are experts at cutting and removing buckthorn and other invasive shrubs.

The job is difficult, but you won’t ever hear them whine.

“They never complain,” said Janesville Parks Director Cullen Slapak. “They always have a can-do attitude.”

That is one of the reasons he nominated the Paynters for the annual Fellowship Award from the Wisconsin Park and Recreation Association.

They received the honor this week for their outstanding contribution to the trail system in Janesville and Rock County.

Since 1992, the Paynters have removed brush and led many trail-building efforts. They attended meetings in support of trails to counter those who said “Not in my backyard.” They mowed and plowed trails, talked to politicians and service clubs, and planted prairies.

The Janesville couple also conducted runs, walks and bike-tour fundraisers and funneled the money into the local trail system.

In short, whenever there was trail work to do, Dean and Jayne were there.

They will be the first to say: “There are a lot of people who do what we do.” But not many have persevered for so long.

“No two people are more deserving,” Slapak said.

Tom Presny, retired parks director for Janesville, agreed.

“I’ve had a working relationship with Dean and Jayne for a good 30 years,” Presny said. “I would sum them up as people who are about improving the quality of life in their community, their county and their state.”

He called the award “a sincere and heartfelt ‘thank you’ for all they have done.”

“There are hundreds of thousands of users on Janesville-area trails each year, and in a way, this nomination is a ‘thank you’ from all of them,” Presny said.

Rails to trails

The Paynters were campers, hikers and bikers before they also became trail enthusiasts.

In the early 1990s, Dean was out running south of Janesville when Dave Gibbs stopped to ask him where the abandoned Chicago and Northwestern Railroad bed was located.

Later, Gibbs and Lloyd Goding, who were then university instructors, called a meeting to turn the bed into a hiking trail. Thus, the Rock Trail Coalition was born.

Dean and Jayne were founding members, and Dean was president for 27 years. Today, both remain on the board of directors.

The coalition’s long-term goal is to create a rail trail across Rock County that connects to the northern Illinois trail system to the south and to the central Wisconsin trail system to the north.

Today, the trail extends from Janesville to the state line.

Over the years, the trail coalition has raised money to help acquire properties, leveraging “thousands of dollars to help make trail projects happen,” Slapak said in his nomination.

“It is the philosophy of the RTC (Rock Trail Coalition) to not just ask a municipality to do something, like buy a property or build a trail,” he said.

Instead, the coalition comes to the table with an idea and the offer of funds and volunteer hours to make it happen.

“The RTC has held steadfast on the idea of, ‘Don’t make demands; instead, offer a partnership,’” Slapak said.

In addition to the coalition, Dean and Jayne have worked on the Ice Age Trail for many years.

They have organized volunteers for work days and secured camping spots, typically at a local farm, where volunteers stayed. The Paynters also became experts at providing a “camp kitchen” and have taught others how to keep hard-working people happily fed.

Dean is on the Ice Age Trail Alliance’s advocacy committee, which deals with government issues related to the trail and its partners. Dean stays in touch with legislators representing the Rock County area and has strongly advocated for the stewardship fund.

Beyond the chainsaw

In addition to hands-on work, the Paynters believe it is important to be among the decision-makers.

Dean has served on city and county advisory committees and other boards and commissions over the years.

The Paynters also are founding members of the Friends of Rock County Parks, where Dean is president, and Friends of Rockport Park, where Dean is secretary. As Friends of Rockport Park, they are among the volunteers who focus on the upkeep of 6 miles of unpaved hiking and biking trails in Janesville’s largest park.

For several years, Jayne has proudly tended a garden along Janesville’s Peace Trail near the wastewater treatment plant. The garden consists of mostly prairie plants and other perennials.

The Fellowship Award is among many received by the couple.

In 2016, Dean and Jayne received the Ice Age Trail Alliance’s Spirit Stick, which symbolizes long-term dedication and service to the trail.

In 2017, the Janesville Parks Division placed a picnic table and plaque along the Peace Trail in honor of the Paynters “for their countless hours volunteering to make the 31-mile paved trail system in Janesville what it is today,” Slapak said.

The Paynters both retired in 2009. Jayne was a medical technologist for 41 years, while Dean worked in human resources.

They look upon their trail work as an extension of themselves.

“We don’t think of it as something separate from our lives,” Dean said. “It is just something we do.”

Anna Marie Lux is a human interest columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux @gazettextra.com.