At 17 years old, Chad Pregracke decided to clean up the Mississippi River. He grew up on its banks as a shell hunter and became disgusted by what he saw day after day.
"I wanted to clean the river," he told a packed crowd Wednesday night at the Watson Forum on DePauw University's campus.
It started with a NASCAR race.
When the winner climbed out of his car, Pregracke noticed he was wearing patches from sponsors.
"I'll get a sponsor," he exclaimed to himself at the time.
The journey began.
Pregracke acquired one boat and had a crew of one -- himself. He began removing discarded tires, barrels, cans and other general trash from the river. Every recyclable item was separated and taken to the local recycling facility.
"We didn't get everything out of the river, but we did what we could," he said.
Pregracke kept searching for ways to make his goal become a reality.
After securing one sponsor -- a business in his hometown -- Pregracke put together a crew who were "pumped" about cleaning the Mississippi. His vision for cleaner riverbanks has grown from the Mississippi to Illinois, Potomac and Ohio rivers.
Today -- 10 years later -- Pregracke employs 13 people for nine months of the year; has four barges; a welding shop; semi-tractor trailers; and work trucks. In 1998, he started a not-for-profit organization, Living Lands and Waters. It offers programs such as Community River Cleanups, Big River Educational Workshops, MillionTrees Project, Riverbottom Forest Restoration and Adopt-a-River Mile.
Pregracke brought his inspirational story to Greencastle High School and shared it with students Wednesday.
Students in Khristen Phillips' chemistry class read Pregracke's book, "From the Bottom Up: One Man's Crusade to Clean America's Rivers," as part of the One Book/One School project. The class decided to do its own kind of river clean up.
In October 2008, 30 students cleaned debris and trash from the banks of the Big Walnut.
Greencastle sophomore Chase Doan took part in the Big Walnut clean up and was assigned to be the "tire guy." He and his friends picked old tires out of the water, while others picked up general trash.
"We found 42 tires," he said.
Pregracke invited students on a delayed spring break, where they can join him on his barge in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
"It is dangerous, hard work," Pregracke noted. "If it were simple, the rivers would be cleaned up a long time ago."
His message to the kids, both at Greencastle High School and DePauw, was "anything is possible." No matter how crazy it sounds, keep focused and be persistent in what you want to do, he encouraged the crowd.
"I'm doing exactly what I want to do," Pregracke stated proudly.
For more information about Pregracke and his river clean up work, visit livinglandsandwater.org