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Fallen wildlife workers honored

May 15, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - It was painful for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service workers on Monday to hear a lengthy list of colleagues who died on the job.

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For Eric Nelson, who knew one of the most recent people to die, the raw emotion was uncomfortable but necessary.

"I don't mind feeling it," he said. "I'm not trying to fight it, really."

About 300 people from across the country gathered for the dedication of a memorial wall at the Fish and Wildlife Service's National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

It took 11 minutes to read aloud the names of 59 Fish and Wildlife employees who have died at work since 1922. Some in the audience followed along in their programs. Others stared blankly ahead. Bagpipes played in the background.

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A moment of silence followed, broken only by the chirping of birds.

The training center was designed to be a "home" for Fish and Wildlife workers, so it was an "appropriate place to celebrate and to grieve," said Director Rick Lemon.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the memorial represents "dedication, perseverance and, yes, self-sacrifice, but above all else, a love for all things natural, wild and free."

"There are tragic stories on this wall ... (of people) who gave their lives in the name of conservation," she said.

Many of the 250 workers attending a week-long conference at the center had known someone whose name is on the wall.

Nelson worked with Kathleen Cheap for four years along the Mississippi River. The two biologists counted wildlife while flying in small airplanes.

Cheap and James M. Callow were the most recent Fish and Wildlife workers to die. Nelson said they were counting ducks along the Columbia River in Oregon when their plane hit an electrical tower and crashed.

"She was a fabulous biologist," said Nelson, who lives in Winona, Minn. "She knew so much about wildlife. ... She was enthusiastic about all things, so much fun and a great laugh."

He broke down as he added, "She'd affect anybody she came along."

"I'll go up and rub her name a little, just to remember her," he said.

Nelson, who served in Vietnam, said the curved wall reminds him of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., where friends and families of those who died in the Vietnam War rub names onto paper as keepsakes.

James Dastyck sat on a wooden bench by the wall, alone after the ceremony was over and almost everyone had left. He pointed to a column that contained the name of his friend, Gary Steinbach.

Dastyck said Steinbach was working in Vermont or northern New York when he died in a car accident in 1994.

Steinbach and Dastyck met in 1972 and worked together counting sea lampreys in Marquette, Mich. "He was a wonderful guy, a fun-loving, honest man," said Dastyck. "He got along with all kinds of people, made everyone feel good."

"I definitely miss him," he said. "There are a limited number of workers who get along with everybody and Gary was that kind of person."

Dastyck, who now works in Saginaw, Mich., said he was "taken aback" because he didn't know about the memorial before coming to the conference. He said he will take pictures of the wall to send to Steinbach's family.

Lemon said he knew Cheap and Callow as warm, funny, and dedicated. And like most Fish and Wildlife workers, they were unassuming, he said.

Early in his career, Lemon was stationed in a hatchery along the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Utah. While delivering fish one day, he said, he saw an old distribution truck. It was the truck in which Fish and Wildlife worker Ray Sword died in a 1973 crash.

Lemon said the wall answers the question: "How can we ensure that we never forget these people?"

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