Conservation Agent Grandfather Inspires in Absence

I never knew my mother’s father. Long before I was born, he divorced my grandmother and moved far away. My mother never forgave him for leaving. He was never a part of our lives. I don’t know if he wanted to be. Before I was old enough to ask, he died, ending any chance of reconciliation.

It’s often said time heals all wounds. I’ve found this to be true, in most cases. My grandmother and aunt speak easily of my grandfather. My mother won’t. Grandma’s stories make him hard not to like. Her words describe a man’s man. Hardened by a youth spent toiling in the dirt of a central Illinois farm. He was a sportsman, a boxer, a pilot and a lawman; a handsome devil who swept her off her feet. That’s the man Grandma likes to remember. It’s better to remember the good, she says.

One-sided stories, a few old photographs, his merit-badge-covered Boy Scout sash and a one-ounce bar of silver––the only gift he ever sent me––are the tools I have used to build a personal account of my grandfather. An account that changes as I age and come to understand some of the life challenges that ultimately drove him to a decision I hope he eternally regrets.

My grandfather was an Indiana Conservation Officer in the 1960s. I have a newspaper clip written about him serving as a diver on Lake Michigan. He recovered a number of drowning victims. The accompanying pictures show him standing on the beach in a wetsuit with tanks on his back and goggles pushed up on top of his wet hair. He was physically impressive. He looked strong but exhausted. Like a hero who gave it all he had. I remember the first time Grandma showed me the article. She explained his job was to work with fishermen and hunters to make sure they were safe and followed the rules. For years after, my only dream was to be a conservation officer.

That dream never came true, but my professional life is devoted to conservation and communicating the outdoors. Even though he was never directly involved, my grandfather did influence my direction. Not nearly as much as the men who stayed home and actually took me fishing, but his influence can’t be denied.

To this day, I believe being a Conservation Agent, as they are called here in Missouri, is one of the greatest jobs in the world. I’m fortunate to know, and privileged to work with, a number of agents. These are extraordinary people who work hard to protect the forest, fish and wildlife of our great state. Every one of them loves the outdoors and participates in the sporting life themselves. They protect the resources for all of us. It’s admirable and rewarding work, and I think occasionally they have fun doing it.

“We have a rich tradition at the Missouri Department of Conservation where multiple generations of Missourians have served the public as conservation agents,” said MDC Chief Conservation Officer Larry Yamnitz.

Every time I see a conservation agent dressed in uniform, I think of the grandfather I never knew. I wonder if he thought of me. If he ever wished he could come pick me up and take me fishing. I’ll never know for sure, but I think he did. I hope he did.