The Unlikely Environmentalist

How Chad Pregracke went from skater dude to the Mississippi River’s most impassioned caretaker is as odd a story as you’ll ever hear along the banks of the mighty river.

By Adam Hinterthuer

I got a glimpse of this upbringing on a trip to the Illinois side of the Mississippi. It was the day before the annual cleanup. Pregracke had exactly two free hours in his schedule, so we headed to his house in East Moline to pick up his skateboard. Pregracke and his father just finished renovating the house, and it is a testament to their ideals of naturalistic craftsmanship and sustainable architecture. Its worn wood floors were salvaged from an old orphanage. The fireplace is made from river stones and decorated with driftwood. Even the path leading to the front door is laid with bricks his crew found on a cleanup. But it has one major flaw: Unlike the house he grew up in, it isn’t on the river. As a result, Pregracke doesn’t stay there often. When he’s in town, he usually sleeps on the barge. “It’s hard for me to live over here, dude,” he says, as if he’s moved to the desert instead of a hundred yards from his parents’ place. We stay just long enough to grab his skateboard.

Pregracke got his first board on a family trip to Florida when he was eleven, before anyone sold skateboards in the Quad Cities. His passion for the sport was immediate and intense, and a natural extension of an adventurous childhood with a river in the backyard.

He  could swim as a toddler and drive a boat by age eight. Friends brought their bikes over so they could set up a ramp on the backyard dock and launch themselves into the water. At fifteen, Chad helped his twenty-year-old brother, Brent, dive for mussels on the Illinois, a trip that, he says, opened his eyes to the “freedom” of working on the river.

Pregracke’s mom, KeeKee, admits she and her husband, Gary, gave their two kids “a lot of leash.” So she wasn’t surprised when Chad announced his plan to clean up the Mississippi. But she wasn’t thrilled either. She worried about boat accidents and tricky currents. Besides, both parents worked in education. Gary taught high school drafting, and KeeKee worked at Black Hawk Community College. They saw a degree in their son’s future. But there were no lectures when Chad dropped out. Instead, Gary heard his son’s idea, and said, “This could be big.” Then he helped fix up the boat; KeeKee cowrote the business model. (Though she made sure Chad later finished his degree.)

When asked if she was worried about her son’s career choice, KeeKee tells a story about a family ski trip to Colorado when Chad was eighteen. He fell in love with snowboarding and thought other Quad City teenagers needed diversions like it back home. After the trip, he drove back to Colorado to a snowboard factory, loaded his pickup with the nicked and scratched factory discounts, and brought them home. Then he put an ad in the paper offering parents cheap Christmas presents for their kids.

“Everything he does is kind of out there and entrepreneurial,” KeeKee says. “He’s a risk taker. Chad sees something and says, ‘I can do that.’”

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