Meet Gary Pearson, Good Oak Society Pillar

It can be difficult to identify one single thing that draws us to admire and love our supporters so much. When it comes to Gary Pearson, it’s near impossible. Everything from the long list of scientific and scholarly accomplishments and prestigious awards that adorn his professional career, to his long, loving study of Leopold’s writing, to Pearson’s shining conservation ethos and irresistible presence, makes us crave more time with him. 

When Pearson visited us at the Shack in early November on a mission of philanthropy to help advance the Leopold Foundation’s Good Oak Society and, it was a day we will never forget—and neither will the beneficiaries of his inspired generosity. In addition to oodles of charm and a melting smile, Gary had brought his commitment to bequeath his remarkable collection of hunting guns which includs a rare 20 gauge Winchester Model 21 Grand American shotgun.

Like many before him, including Aldo Leopold, it was hunting that led Gary to embrace a life striving to conserve the habitats and health of as much of the natural flora and fauna—the land—as he could. Born and raised on the edge of one of America’s legendary wetlands, the Sandusky Bay marshes on the south shore of Lake Erie in Ohio, it was under the tutelage of his grandpa that he first took up duck hunting at age 10. He explains:

My paternal grandfather, who would have been a few years younger than Aldo Leopold, was a farmer by vocation and an avid waterfowl hunter and self-taught naturalist by preference. I remember as a small boy going for walks with him where he would point out the common names of all of the trees, grasses and forbs on the farm.  He was a walking encyclopedia of the wildlife of the area and I recall two duck hunters stopping by one day to ask him to identify some ducks they had shot. 

It was upon witnessing the acceleration of Ohio’s environmental degradation and wildlife decline that Pearson reprioritized his life’s course of action, laying down the shotgun in favor of the book, pencil, microscope, and podium. After he earned his DVM in 1963 and MS (microbiology) in 1965 from The Ohio State University , Pearson pursued a 55-plus year, decorated career in wildlife health research and then veterinary practice, based in North Dakota. He strove throughout, via scores of peer-reviewed and popular publications and presentations in the academy (wide-ranging but often focused on waterfowl diseases and water management), to apply his extraordinary vision and knowledge to the good fight for the conservation of nature. 

But Pearson never quit hunting entirely, and his life-long appreciation for masterfully crafted hunting guns compelled him over time to collect finest examples of engineering and art. When “Fritz” Fredrick Leopold, Aldo’s grandson, donated the Fox 20 gauge shotgun that Aldo custom ordered in 1921 it inspired Gary to think about how best to use his own collection to advance his commitment to conservation. So he converged his legacy with the Leopold legacy by making a provision in his will that the foundation is to receive these artfully made treasures—a conservatively estimated contemporary value of ~$150,000.

Gary Pearson (right) with executive director Buddy Huffaker, and Pearson’s 20 gauge Winchester Model 21 Grand American shotgun.

While those numbers are wonderfully humbling to us, Pearson points to another piece of evidence as the real value—at least to himself. He came relatively early to A Sand County Almanac in 1967, when a North Dakota colleague at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center suggested that Gary read Leopold’s opus. So he did. Pearson mail-ordered a copy of the 1966 Oxford University Press hardcover edition:

“When it arrived,” he said, “I opened it and read: ‘There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.’ I stopped and read that again. And then a third time. Maybe I wasn’t so crazy after all!”

By now, Pearson has read that very book twelve times (he keeps a dated tally inside its cover), including his most recent reading late last year, in addition to a handful of readings of other editions. We hear deep conviction when Pearson says, “Aldo Leopold has been the primary guiding force of my life for the past 54 years.”

Pearson’s dated tally of his readings penciled inside his 1966 Oxford University Press hardcover edition of A Sand County Almanac.

Thanks to his generosity, the Aldo Leopold Foundation will be in a much better position to further the guiding force of Leopold and the land ethic in a variety of ways, so tomorrow’s communities can continue to work together for all things natural, wild and free! 

Thank you, Gary, and welcome to the most cherished group of land-ethic advocates we know, The Good Oak Society!

Learn more about Legacy Giving to the Aldo Leopold Foundation.