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Leopold Week  •  Virtual Programming


Loving a Good Oak Relationship

Two things. 

That’s what Aldo Leopold told us he was interested in. Two relationships, actually: the one between people and land, and the one between people and people. Both, of course, intertwined and interdependent, indispensable for the bright future of the conservation of things wild and free. 

When it comes to our most recent Good Oak Society inductees, these relationships also play prominent roles. Carol Hillestad and Susan Varco entered the society together on a brisk April day at the Shack, just as they had entered an inseparable friendship years ago as devotes of conservation, and of this very humble place. 

Buddy Huffaker presents Good Oak Society plaques to Susan and Carol inside the Shack. The plaques are made from the wood of a black oak tree that grew on the edge of the Shack Prairie.

But it wasn’t always so; their stories came together after years on separate but parallel paths. Carol, a native of Lodi, Wisconsin, who enjoyed her “wanderlust” for years, studying and residing in Oslo, Norway, and earning her masters from UCLA, where she lived and worked as a research analyst and eventually a real estate advisor.

After a return to Wisconsin in the 1990s to help her ailing mother in Lodi, Carol volunteered to assist with a mural near the classic downtown square. And, guess who figured prominently as subject of that mural? Working on the silhouette of this famous local conservationist, sparked her to learn more. She soon attended an art show at the foundation, then began to explore the Legacy Center and reserve lands, growing in knowledge, admiration and inspiration from the Leopold land and example. 

Carol in front of mural of Aldo Leopold, which she helped paint as a volunteer.

For years, Susan’s path was shared with her beloved husband, Charlie. The Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, residents had discovered Leopold and the foundation by happy chance, during a trip home from Wisconsin Dells. They were drawn in by nature, the hiking trails, and then by the Leopold story itself. 

“We stopped and learned of Aldo’s legacy, the story of the Shack, the Land, and the history of his profound impact on land management and conservation. We both agreed, too much land is being destroyed for modernization. We’re losing nature, our forests, prairies, natural wildlife, trails, which we so enjoy. We need to preserve these natural resources to protect land, for those behind us to enjoy,” Susan said.

The couple began voraciously reading Aldo’s books, beginning with A Sand County Almanac. Soon, they were exploring books by the Leopold children, and more. Throughout, they were bi-weekly visitors to the Leopold Center and the trails, where Susan and Charlie found so much joy and peace.

Susan and Charlie at the Shack, where they found much happiness together.

As with many others, this is where their paths come together. Carol had shortly before answered a call from the ALF newsletter, soliciting a visitor and Member Services Associate—who’s duties included the welcoming of visitors. As if by higher providence, the three were soon friendly, then, in no time after that, fast friends. Carol looked forward to Susan and Charlie’s visits, when she helped them navigate everything from trail maps to book purchases. The couple came to love their time at the Center with Carol. The feeling was shared by Carol. 

After Charlie passed, Carol and Susan grew even closer. They began to regularly walk the trails together, learning more about the delights of nature, and more about each other. Their friendship now, as Carol puts it, is “everything.” 

When the two decided to bequeath generously to the foundation in their wills, It was such thrilling news to us, but not surprising, when we reflect on the journey that brought them to this day. As Aldo intoned, relations between people are key to people’s relation to the natural world—shared love, respect, and awe reciprocate from one to the other, and neither grows stronger without the other.

A Leopold Bench along the river near the Shack was donated by Charlie’s employer in his remembrance. Susan and Carol visit it often, pausing for rest and reflection. Susan is certain Charlie “is with me on this decision, that I make these donations to the ALF, to continue preservation of the land we loved so Well!”

The words of Leopold inscribed on the bench were chosen by Susan. “I’m glad I will not be young in a future without wilderness.”

The generosity of Carol and Susan goes miles and miles down the path to assure that no one need suffer such fate, today or tomorrow. 

Our congratulations and thanks to these two (okay, three) made up of very, very good oak.

Learn more about the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s legacy giving options