Heavy equipment operator Don Roby is responsible for almost every inch of infrastructure at Dahomey National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Mississippi. Among his many duties, he keeps 16 miles of gravel road open and graded. He mows and trims back limbs along the twomile nature trail. He maintains the 300foot boardwalk with its observation tower, as well as the fishing pier at the lake and the levee that protects the seasonal wetlands. He makes sure the boundaries of the 9,691acre refuge remain clearly posted.
In that way, Roby is much like the roughly 650 other wagegrade employees around the Refuge System.
Heres what else he does. He goes to Friends meetings to hear and make suggestions. He weeds and waters the Friends flower garden and helps with the Christmas Bird Count, dishing out chili and conversation afterward. He distributes backpacks, binoculars and pamphlets to kids who come on refuge field trips, and he prepares tidy trailers for interns who stay longer. He issues hunting licenses and makes sure everyone knows the rules.
Multitasking, too, is the norm among Refuge System employees, most of whom wear several hats. Because were so shorthanded, says Stephen Gard, project leader for the North Mississippi National Wildlife Refuges Complex, which includes Dahomey Refuge, we tend to use everybody for everything. And its not unusual for a heavy equipment operatoroften the first person a visitor sees, says national heavy equipment coordinator John Blitchto interact with visitors.
What sets Roby apart, according to his colleagues, is the grace and gusto with which he does it alloften by himself. His supervisor, Eva Kristofik, who manages Dahomey and two other refuges, is stationed miles away. Although she communicates with him daily and gets there weekly, Roby is, she and Gard agree, the face and voice of Dahomey Refuge.
Hes really good with people, Kristofik says. Visitors love him. Our Friends groupthey love him. Heck, some refuges arent staffed at all, so when you have only one person there, its great that the public feels that way.
One person is officially correct, but Roby has a secret weapon. Often, his wife, Arlean, a volunteer, makes the 65mile drive to the refuge with him from Holcomb, MS, where he built their house next to the one he was born in 52 years ago. Arlean Roby cleans the office, answers the phone, mows the lawn, picks up litter, sets up exhibits. When Roby has to clear a tree from the road with a chainsaw, she carries the logs away. Roby describes his wife the way everybody else describes him: Whatever needs to be done, she does it.
Often, the Robys pick up their neighbors, Donald and Virginia Pryor, both in their 80s and members of the Friends group, who pitch in with Arlean. That kind of outreach on Robys part is unique and very cool, Blitch says.
Roby sometimes starts work with a quick email to Kristofik: Good morning. Today is going to be a good day. His shift begins at 8 a.m., but Robywho also attends night school to keep up with the kids on this computer stuff and just retired from the National Guard after 25 yearslikes to arrive an hour early just to meet people. Visitors want to talk, and they appreciate me relating to them in a friendly way, he says. Your attitude, your lovethey go a long way up the ladder.
As he discusses his 14 years at Dahomey Refuge, hes in the office drinking coffee with an 86yearold hunter whos glad to see me, and I like that. If something happens, the hunters know Im on the refuge somewhere. That part of his jobchatting, helping, just being thereis as important to him as keeping Dahomey accessible and looking spruce.
I want this refuge to stand out, Roby says.
Alison Howard is a Virginiabased freelance writer and editor.