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Conservationist Legend Jim Keefe

By Joel M. Vance

Jim Keefe once was giving a program on a stage, and he reached a fever pitch of conservation evangelism — and fell off the stage into the orchestra pit with a great clatter of chairs.

He clambered back on and, as the audience sat in stunned silence, said, “Don’t ever say I don’t know how to make a point!”

John Madson and I once kept a bunch of OWAA members rolling on the floor at an annual conference telling Jim Keefe stories.

Jim had a tendency for bizarre accidents. Like the time he shot himself with a bow and arrow — and the time he ricocheted a black-powder pistol ball right between his eyes. He told these stories on himself, and we retold them with affection. Jim was far more than a source of amusing anecdotes though. He was the best boss I ever had.

When he died in September 1999, he either was the youngest 75 year old or the oldest — young because he always thought young; old because he was a man perhaps born out of his time. Philosophically, he was geared to about 1830.

Jim should have been a mountain man. His passion was making and shooting black-powder guns, and he regressed from caplocks to flintlocks. He would have been entirely at home in camp with Jim Bridger. Ol’ Jim (Bridger) was a storyteller of legend, and so was Ol’ Jim (Keefe).

Although his inclinations were toward the 19th century, he was as forward thinking as anyone I’ve ever known. He was an OWAA legend as deserving as any we’ve recognized. He led Missouri’s Conservation Department information program for 28 years, saw it evolve from an Information Section of a few people to a populated Public Affairs Section to an even more well-staffed Public Outreach Section.

Jim was dedicated to information, never mind the euphemistic “outreaching.” He figured that if the department was doing a good job, it would sell itself, and if it wasn’t, we should try to fix the problem rather than try a cosmetic public relations job.

Through the early years, Jim’s wife Doris (Dink to everyone) was just that — a wife. It took a landmark campaign to change her overnight from a housewife to a tireless organizer who would, even before her husband, be honored as a Missouri Conservation Hall of Fame inductee.

That campaign was in 1975-76 — to get a one-eighth-cent sales tax on the ballot, the money constitutionally dedicated to fish, wildlife and forestry. It wasn’t the first time Missouri conservationists had gone directly to the voters, skirting a capricious and sometimes greedy state Legislature.

In 1936 voters approved a constitutional amendment, put on the ballot by initiative petition, to establish a bipartisan Conservation Commission that would, in turn, hire a professional staff. Missourians created the department by their vote, and they cherished it for the next 40 years until they once again were asked to do something revolutionary. That was to tax themselves and to trust the department with dedicated funds, secure from legislative interference.

I don’t think Jim Keefe ever had any doubt that the issue would pass (it did, barely). He was convinced that Missourians cherished their conservation heritage and would put their money behind it. Even critics admitted that the department was above dirty politics — they might not have liked conservation in general, but they couldn’t find fault with the way the department administered the program.

Jim was the information spearhead during what amounted to six years of planning. In 1969 the idea of increased funding developed, but after conservationists gathered the most signatures ever on an initiative, a court ruled that the petition was flawed and threw it out.

The proposal had been for a penny tax on a soft drink container … probably a foolish hope, given that 7-Up had its world headquarters in St. Louis and vowed to spend whatever it took to defeat the measure.

After that balls-up in 1972, the conservationists decided to go for a general sales tax increase in the 1976 election … and the Information Section got the job of selling the program. I joined the department in 1969, just in time to inherit the writing of the various publications that explained what the department would do with the money.

I was the ink pen in the hands of planners far advanced over me. Jim was one of those few who shaped the program that went to the voters. He was the logical choice to write those sales pitches, but gave that job to me and pushed, prodded, poked and edited until I came up with what he wanted.

A year before the 1976 election, Dink Keefe appeared an unlikely champion. She had spent her adult life raising four children and was a sweet, quiet woman who stayed in the background. All that changed overnight. She knew a vital need when she saw one.

The Conservation Federation, Missouri’s largest citizen conservation group, spearheaded the petition campaign. But it was short staffed and overworked. The executive secretary, Ed Stegner, and two assistants would travel the state, riding herd on petition gatherers and making talks to sell the idea.

They badly needed someone to organize the office and the campaign, a central clearinghouse. They found that person in Dink. She volunteered to help and soon found herself at the Federation office eight hours a day, in charge of everything.

Think of keeping track of thousands of petitions in eight Congressional districts, making sure that the petitions were legally correct and that the nine districts gathered enough signatures. Think of keeping in contact with hundreds of volunteer petition gatherers and thousands of signatures.

Dink did it, full time, unpaid, for a year. It was a thankless and monumental job. She never complained, never slacked off. She just did what had to be done.

When it was over and Missouri had given itself a landmark conservation program, she quietly left the Federation office and went home to her home and family.

When you stack her list of honors against those of Jim’s, it’s lopsided in his favor, but without her untiring and unpaid organization, Missouri would not have the $80 million annually that the conservation sales tax brings in and the concomitant program recognized as the nation’s best.

Jim and Dink married in 1943 and spent military time in Mountain Home, Idaho, an Air Force base that provided the former Sgt. Keefe with hilarious stories of his uniformed career. They probably were embellished, but not much.

Their marriage was a powerful union, and when Dink was inducted into the Missouri Conservation Hall of Fame, Jim said, “I believe Dink is here with us today.” In the same regard, though they both now are gone and both Hall of Fame inductees, I can’t help feeling they are together somewhere but also present where they’re needed.

He was Irish to the core, including, once, owning an Irish setter that was as dumb as it was beautiful. He and Dink had four kids with eminently Irish names: Kevin, Kathy, Kerry and Kelly. Once, at a meeting, a fellow who was about 2.5 sheets to the wind, squinted at Jim’s identification badge on which he had printed “O’Keefe” and slurred, “Okafee — what kinda name is that?”

Jim never said no to an idea, nor failed to support it while it had a chance of working. His philosophy was to try new things and if they didn’t work, then try something else.

So, he went along with statewide “conservation fairs” called Evenings With Wildlife that showcased the department and provided a night out for rural Missourians.

He endorsed an employee communications contest where non-information types could win wildlife art prints for their public communications efforts.

He gathered Edgar Denison to his publications’ bosom, and Denison’s Wildflowers of Missouri became a bestseller even though it had nothing to do with hunting and fishing. It was one of several natural history books published before the conservation tax was passed and before the department had a Natural History Section.

In 1980, Jim became a member of OWAA’s Circle of Chiefs, an award that recognizes communicators who have had significant input in conservation. It was an overdue honor. The Circle was founded by Werner Nagel, a co-worker at the Missouri Department, in 1958, and Nagel preceded Keefe as a Chief in 1964, as did his predecessor as Information Chief Dan Saults (1973).

Jim accumulated many honors, the latest being induction into the Missouri Conservation Hall of Fame. He already had been named Master Conservationist in 1998, giving him a clean sweep of the two most prestigious conservation awards in his home state.

Under Jim, the Missouri Conservationist magazine went from a circulation of 20,000 to 450,000 and was named the nation’s top state conservation publication five times. Jim wrote the scripts for six department films, all of which won national awards. He also wrote The World of the Opossum For Lippincott’s Life History series and a series of children’s readers. But his best writing was a prickly editorial voice that enlivened the pages of The Conservationist for more than a quarter century. Sometimes he would write editorials that, essentially, set Conservation Commission policy – without the knowledge or consent of the four Conservation Commissioners. “I don’t think they read the magazine anyway,” he told me once.

He would decide what was right for the department, and then he’d put the commissioners on the spot to endorse it. Once, when the nation’s governors were holding their annual meeting in Missouri, the Commission wanted to give them free fishing permits. Jim adamantly said, “We don’t give free permits to anyone else. Why should we do it for them?” The commissioners agreed and chipped in personal money to buy the permits.

Jim and then-editor Mac Johnson persuaded John Madson to write a dozen articles, each showcasing a month of the year, for The Conservationist. John did it for free. He had a soft spot for the Missouri Information Section crew and considered us great friends — as we did him.

We had a congenial group and often hunted, fished or canoed together. It was a tribulation to quail hunt with Jim because of his black-powder shotguns. The covey would go up, he’d shoot and a great cloud of smoke would envelop everything, making it near-impossible to tell if anyone had hit anything.

We’d have to wait while he reloaded and the dogs chased down singles. But it was worth the wait. The hunting usually was good; the company always was good. It is a compliment to say, “Yes, I’ve been down the river with him.”

Jim went down the river with many of us — and we’re all better for it.

Joel M. Vance was recruited by Jim Keefe as a writer for the Missouri Conservation Department and worked with him for 17 years.

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