For Immediate Release
August 16, 1999

Contact: Tom MacKenzie



Those who knew him well are convinced that when the World lost Tom Zephaniah Atkeson recently, on July 12, 1999, America lost a true patriot, a great conservationist, a lover of nature and a man of incredible courage, determination and stamina that few, now or in the future, will be able to emulate.

Atkeson spent close to 50 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and for half of that time he served as the manager of a 34,000-plus-acre national wildlife refuge near Decatur, in northern Alabama.

The Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1938 as a wintering area for ducks, geese and other migratory birds. It was the first national wildlife refuge ever placed on a multi-purpose reservoir and it began as an experiment to find out if dams built to supply hydroelectric power could be made attractive to wildlife. Today, it attracts thousands of wintering waterfowl each year and is home to 115 species of fish, 74 reptile and amphibian species, 47 species of mammals and 285 different species of songbirds. The refuge receives as many as 70,0000 visitors annually.

Tom Atkeson
Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Atkeson began his Service career as a junior biologist at the new Wheeler Refuge in 1939, and his first job was to map the refuge and install line markers on its boundaries that meandered for 158 miles on both sides of the Tennessee River.

In 1941, when the United States entered World War II, he left the refuge to do his patriotic duty and joined the Army. A year later, during a training assignment at Fort Hood, Texas, he was seriously injured in an antitank mine explosion. The mine exploded, ripping away the lower part of his face, severing both his hands and taking parts of both arms. He was also blinded and his body was seared by flash burns and riddled with pieces of shrapnel.

During his long recovery, he dreamed of returning to work at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. In an article published in a September 1986 edition of Audubon, the magazine of the National Audubon Society, writer Laura Riley relates Atkeson's account of how, after taking stock of everything he had lost and the abilities he still had left after these injuries, he was able to put things into perspective and regain a purpose to his life.

"My father was sitting with me one day in the hospital and he would preface everything he said to me by calling me 'Captain!' Finally I said, and I guess I was a little irritable, 'Hell's fire, Dad, you've never called me by rank before, why in hell start now?' and he said 'Oh, I didn't mean your rank, son, I was thinking of that poem we used to say: "Invictus." You remember it.'

"I hadn't cried up to then, but the tears started rolling clown my cheeks and into my bandages, and I'm sure he was crying too as we recited together as we had so many times:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods there be
For my unconquerable soul...
It matters not how strait the gate
How charged with punishment the scroll:
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.'

"Those eloquent lines of William Ernest Henley's transformed me. From that moment I had my perspective back. I knew with complete conviction that if I tried my utmost and did not let any temporary failure dishearten or stop me I could go on and do something. It might not be exactly what I had planned, but something.

"It was harder than anything I'd imagined until then, yet easier in a way because I'd made up my mind. I wasn't going to fail. I felt I'd been over and looked down into a dark hole and just drawn back in time to keep from falling in. And I'd met others in the hospitals who were worse off than I. I could have lost everything, but I didn't. I still have something to work with, even if at times it seemed to consist largely of my ‘unconquerable soul.' But I meant to do all I could with it."

It turned out that he was able to accomplish far more than he and others could possibly have imagined.

It took more than two years of seeing specialists at Army hospitals all around the country before he was recovered sufficiently to think about returning to work. In 1945, at the rank of captain, the Army awarded him an honorable discharge.

At first his hopes of returning to the Fish and Wildlife Service seemed rather bleak. While Atkeson had been at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington D.C., he had visited the Service's director, Ira Gabrielson, whom he had once met at the Wheeler Refuge several years before. He told the Director of his desire to return to the Service after he got out of the Army, and Gabrielson assured him that he would be welcomed back. However, when the time actually arrived, Gabrielson was now retired and others in a position to hire him were not sure that a blind man without hands could perform viable work at a refuge.

Atkeson's persistence, however, got him back his job at Wheeler on the condition that he employ, at his own expense, a personal assistant who could drive for him and would always be at his side. Back on the refuge, Atkeson concentrated on memorizing refuge trails and the general lay of the land. He also began learning special skills to help him compensate for his lack of sight. Eventually, his knowledge of the refuge became so keen that soon he could tell exactly where the vehicle in which he was riding was at any time by the degree and the number of turns it took and by the sound its wheels made on the roadway.

Despite his having a degree in forestry from the University of Georgia, with graduate studies from Auburn University, and a love of the natural outdoors that he had acquired early in life while growing up on the family farm near Columbia, Alabama, who would have thought this severely disabled man might one day be promoted to refuge manager? To his advantage, there was the invaluable refuge experience he had obtained, as a sighted person, at Wheeler before the war and his being gifted with a superior natural intuition. But perhaps it was also due to the personal courage he displayed whenever he stood his ground in pursuit of something he believed in or when he showed a willingness to try new ways of doing things. Whatever it was that influenced his superiors in 1962, he was named that year as Wheeler's refuge manager.

As refuge manager, Atkeson reintroduced to the refuge numerous species of wildlife that had once been driven off or had died out when the land had been cleared for agriculture and during the building of the Wheeler Reservoir. He brought in a starter population of otters from the Okefenokee Swamp, and added wild turkeys, muskrats, racoons, beavers, bobcats, opossums, coyotes and grey and red foxes. Other wildlife that were attracted to the refuge's now- welcoming habitat included two endangered bats species and scores of bird species.

He also instituted the practice of cooperative farming, whereby local farmers were permitted to cultivate refuge lands to produce crops that, after harvest, would provide a food source for ducks, geese and other wildlife. He had noted that while ducks and geese could land on the reservoir, it provided little in the way of food for wildfowl because the water was too deep to admit the sunlight needed for growth of aquatic plants.

Harvey Fowler, a supervisory park ranger who worked for Atkeson at Wheeler, looks back at his friend's 25-year tenure there with deep admiration. Managing a refuge of this size, he noted, was a challenging job for even the most able-bodied person, he said. But in spite of the injuries he sustained in World War II, Fowler said, "as a refuge manager, Tom was brilliant — one of the very best."

Another former refuge employee, retired forester Richard Bays, said Atkeson depended on the eyes of his workers and encouraged them to share all they saw with him.

"He wanted to know about everything. It was almost as though he thoroughly enjoyed living vicariously through the experiences of others," Bays said.

Tuck Stone, took over the post of refuge manager following Atkeson's retirement in 1987. He said that he knew of Tom Atkeson prior to moving to Wheeler Refuge but had never known him personally. "All that changed in very short order and we became good friends," he said. Stone said that because of Tom's continuing interest in Wheeler Refuge and its wildlife resources, they shared ideas and management philosophy on a regular basis.

"One of the many things that always impressed me about Tom was even if he did not agree with your point of view, he was never critical of it," Stone said. "Tom was a valuable historical resource for me, he was always willing to relate how and why things had been done in the past at Wheeler Refuge," noting that even at 87, his mental recall was amazing.

"His family and Wheeler Refuge were his life. He will serve as an inspiration to a lot of us who had the good fortune to know him," Stone said.

Atkeson's dedication to wildlife and to his refuge was well known in the community and from afar. Over the years, commendations, awards and citations have stacked up. Birmingham, Alabama, proclaimed a Tom Atkeson Day and presented him with a key to the city. Twice he was recognized as Alabama Conservationist of the Year and was also named as American Motors' National Conservationist of the Year.

During President Ronald Reagan's administration, he was also named Federal Handicapped Employee of the Year and he and his family were invited to the White House where President Reagan presented him with the award. He told a journalist later that his family enjoyed the trip to Washington, but that he despised the word "handicapped" commenting, "If I do a good job I don't mind getting credit for it, but I don't want to be a successful cripple."

Bill Dukes, former mayor of Decatur and now an Alabama State Representative, worked closely over the years with the refuge manager at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge and spoke of him with great affection. "He was one of the most respected persons in the entire area of North Alabama — not just among his peers, but among all the people as well," Dukes said, noting that he considered Atkeson to be the epitome of a true and dedicated lover of nature, and a man who loved the refuge and all the wildlife that it supported. "The memory of my good friend will be with us always in Alabama," he said.

Atkeson's father, who worked as a rural mail carrier to supplement the farm income, introduced his son to reading and to the wildlife conservation literature of the day. From an avid reader Atkeson evolved into a prolific writer, who authored numerous scholarly and scientific publications and, for 33 years, wrote a popular weekly newspaper column entitled "Out of Doors." The column appeared in the Decatur Daily and other newspapers. Editor of the Decatur Daily, Tom Wright, called him "a passionate writer and an extraordinary man."

Atkeson also enjoyed writing poetry. In his final column, published June 1987 after he retired from the Service and returned to the family farm, Tom Atkeson wrote these words:

"There are marble men on marble steeds, to commemorate heroic deeds.
And statues of heads of state, and schools named for the rich and great.
Me, I want no such monuments as these.
Instead plant me in a copse of trees."

Tom Atkeson died at age 87 in Columbia, Alabama. His wife, Margaret, predeceased him in 1993. He is survived by his daughter, Mary Cordelia Atkeson Gibson of Port St. Joe, Florida, and his son, Dr. Tom Atkeson, who is with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in Tallahassee.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System comprised of more than 500 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries, 64 fish and wildlife management assistance offices and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state wildlife agencies.


Release #: :R99-069

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