Today, I am in Colorado's San Luis Valley with Secretary Salazar, celebrating the beginning of a new landscape conservation initiative -- the Sangre de Cristo National Conservation Area. Eventually, we hope to connect this area to a larger San Luis Valley Conservation Area, linking wildlife habitat from northern New Mexico up into western Colorado. We are celebrating a pledge by Mr. Louis Bacon to donate easements over the 90,000-acre Blanca Ranch to establish this new conservation unit. This would be the third-largest acreage donation to the National Wildlife Refuge System. The largest, establishing Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, occurred in 1973. It was engineered by then-Region 2 Realty Chief (and my father) William "Bill" Ashe, working with his friend and colleague Patrick "Pat" Noonan (The Nature Conservancy). Sunday is Father's Day, so I'm thinking of my dad, what he has accomplished in his life, and what that has meant for me.
He was born a Depression baby, in 1929, in the gritty industrial town of Ansonia, Connecticut. He was the oldest of 7. His mother was the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants. His father, a machinist, worked the industrial mills along the Naugatuck River Valley. My dad enlisted in the Army after high school, served briefly in the post-WWII occupation of Japan, and then the GI Bill took him to the University of Connecticut, where he studied forestry. He married a girl from Bridgeport and took a job with an outfit called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They had 5 boys, and when I think of Father's Day, I often think of a quote from the Rev. Theodore Hesburg --
"The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother."
He did, and he does. He also taught me and my brothers to love the outdoors. He taught us to camp and fish and shoot and hunt, although he was never an avid camper, angler, shooter or hunter himself. He played handball, and did it well. He worked to improve his communities. He took Thanksgiving meals to the poor when we lived in Atlanta. He won many greased watermelon contests at our neighborhood pool, and taught us to win. He taught us to be competitors and to hate losing, but also that there is no shame in losing if you have given your best. He could "wrassle" and pin all five Ashe boys at once. He took us to NWRs throughout the Southeast, where we would vacation while he worked on acquisitions. Some of my best childhood days (and to be honest, at times some of the most tedious and boring for us restless boys) were spent with him, visiting refuges and fish hatcheries.
My dad took this photo of me and two brothers, with friends, banding ducks at Piedmont NWR, in 1968.
My brother Jeff is holding the wood duck. I am second from the right and was 12 years old.
And life comes full circle. When I was National Wildlife Refuge System Chief, I took my family camping at Chincoteague NWR. Then-manager, John Schroer took us on a tour of the Refuge. After about two hours riding around, he looked over his shoulder and asked my two children, "Is there anything else you'd like to see?" My daughter replied, "I just wanted to go to the beach."
My dad earned a reputation as a friend and fierce advocate of the field. He rose to be a Deputy Regional Director and left a great mark on a great organization, retiring in 1990, after 37 years. Still today, our ranks include people that he hired or mentored. He had no birthright, no privilege, no pedigree. Everything he is, he earned. And that has been my birthright, my privilege, and my pedigree.
And now, he is 83. He says, "I'm old" as he struggles to scale the staircase in his home; something he would have done two-stairs at bound, without thinking, not long ago. And indeed, he is old. And I love him in his aged form. But when I think of him, in my minds-eye, I don't see an old man. I see him racing me and my brothers between the telephone poles outside our Atlanta home; I hear the late-night laughter and conversations when he would play cribbage with neighbors on weekend nights; I feel the confidence of a young boy, sleeping in the back of a station wagon, while he drove us on long trips; I see people and places made better for his effort, energy, and advice. Advice that I still get, and still value. I see a life well-lived.
And I'm sure we all have such memories of fathers, or those who are or were father figures. Author and poet, Anne Sexton, said --
"It doesn't matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was."
So whether they are alive or deceased, young or old, high profile or low key, we remember with gratitude these important and valued men who have helped shape our lives.
Happy Father's Day!