A true conservationist

Some of this country's greatest conservationists are people who work tirelessly behind the scenes to protect the outdoor wonders so many of us take for granted. One such person was William F. "Bill" Hailey of Little Rock, Ark. who passed away this morning at the age of 79.

You probably never heard of Bill. In part, this is because he never sought recognition for anything he did. He worked diligently throughout his life to protect our wildlife resources, yet never stepped into the limelight. The things he's done have had far-reaching, positive effects, however, and all of us who love the outdoors owe him a debt of gratitude for devoting himself endlessly to the conservation ethic.

On March 11, 1957, at the age of 26, Bill Hailey fulfilled a dream he'd had since he was very young by becoming a conservation agent for the Missouri Dept. of Conservation (MDC). He might have begun this career earlier except for a couple of things.

First, he voluntarily joined the Marines during the Korean War and spent 14 months in active combat as a tank crewman in that country. Second, the MDC had a requirement in those days that conservation agent applicants must be between the ages of 25 and 33, and Bill wasn't old enough to apply until a couple of years after he returned home from Korea. During the interim, he worked as a guard in a Missouri state penitentiary.

In 1957, however, Bill was one of eight men chosen to become conservation agents for the MDC. He was assigned to an 860-square-mile piece of Ozark Mountains territory and lived in the town of Potosi — an ideal location, he felt, because the area was laced with streams full of smallmouth bass. In his off-hours, Bill enjoyed fishing and canoeing.

Soon after, Bill met the former Goldie Lee Wilson, a young lady teaching eight grades of school children in a one-room schoolhouse in Berryman. They were wed on July 10, 1960 and never parted. They would have celebrated their 50th anniversary later this year.

Because Bill married a girl who lived in the same area in which he worked as a game warden, the MDC required him to move. So immediately after his marriage, he was reassigned to Carthage in Jasper County, Mo. His salary that year, he says, was $3,780, and "We basically started with nothing."

What Bill did possess was an intense passion for his job as conservation officer. He was enforcing game and fish laws in the field practically every day year-round.

And to improve relations with local residents, he took on additional tasks. He wrote weekly newspaper columns about wildlife law enforcement issues for the Carthage Evening Press, the Joplin Globe, the Sarcoxie News and the Golden City Herald, and made regular appearances on local TV and radio programs. He also was a regular guest speaker at every civic club group in his assigned area, and later an active member (and president) of the Lion's Club.

Bill's work as a conservation agent opened up a world of interesting opportunities. He was part of a bird-banding team that spent weeks in Alberta, Canada, working with waterfowl, and was responsible for annual censuses of prairie chickens on Missouri's virgin prairies. These tasks led to a lifelong love of birding, a passion he often indulged.

Bill later worked in Missouri's Ripley and Ozark counties. Then, in 1981, he retired from his decades-long career with the MDC and moved to Little Rock, where he became assistant chief of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission (AGFC) Enforcement Division and head of the state's new Boating Education program.

Soon after he was promoted to Education Division chief where he helped launch the state's fledgling Hunter Education program.

While Bill excelled in his work in education, wildlife law enforcement was what he loved doing most. When his friend David Herman became chief of AGFC's Enforcement Division, Bill accepted Herman's offer to come back to his former job as assistant chief of the division.

During the months that followed, Bill continued as he always had — working diligently to ensure that wildlife laws were enforced fairly yet firmly.

And through it all, from the time he became a conservation agent in 1957 until he retired almost 40 years later, he was guided by the principles of our nation's great conservationists, including people such as Harold Alexander in Arkansas and Werner Nagel in Missouri who were among his many close friends.

In particular, Bill was a student of Aldo Leopold, one of the foremost conservationists of the 20th century, and he was constantly guided by the principles Leopold laid out in his Sand County Almanac, a book Bill made required reading for every cadet who went through the AGFC enforcement academy.

"Conservation is a state of harmony between man and land," Leopold wrote. That principle guided Bill Hailey as he supervised, taught and mentored people of all stripes who joined the ranks of state wildlife agency employees.

During the years Bill worked at the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and Missouri Department of Conservation, he was a respected leader who dedicated himself to working with a wide variety of conservation groups. He was a longtime member of the Wildlife Society (serving as president of both the Missouri and Arkansas chapters), served for many years on the board of directors of the Arkansas Audubon Society, was secretary/treasurer of the Law Enforcement section of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies for 10 years and a longtime member of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.

In addition, he annually taught wildlife law enforcement to students of the national Wildlife Management Short Course at Colorado State University, he was long-time secretary for the Fraternal Order of Police, an active member of his church, and served as AGFC liaison to the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services.

Bill worked as assistant enforcement chief until 1993, when finally, after a career that spanned 36 years at two state wildlife agencies, he decided it was time to retire. Retirement didn't suit him, however. A month after leaving the AGFC, he returned and started working part-time for the Wildlife Management Division, taking on a variety of tasks that included everything from managing fur-buyer records to answering questions from the public about wildlife and wildlife laws.

During this period, too, he served as a mentor for many young employees, teaching them lessons about conservation and human nature that no doubt will serve them well throughout their careers. Never has there been a greater teacher of conservation and ethics than this gentleman who taught by example as well as by words.

Bill Hailey was one of my best friends, and I am fortunate to be one of those who learned from his example. I will never be able to emulate his life as a dedicated conservationist, but as a writer, the sentences I craft will always contain a measure of the things he taught me about conservation, ethics and service to others.

In writing this column, I had only one real goal: to be sure Bill is remembered for being the one thing he strived ever day to be — a true conservationist. After two full careers with two of the nation's top wildlife agencies and years of dedication to scores of conservation groups and their causes, he deserves nothing less. He is one of the unsung heroes to whom we owe much more than we can ever repay.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net. His book, "Out There Fishing," is available at www.catfishsutton.com.