Hagie Award Winner 2006: Gary Nelson
If you’ve ever visited a certain biology classroom at the Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) campus in Ankeny, you know they don’t call him the “Road Kill King” for nothing. Mounted deer overlook drawers of stuffed birds, plastic crates crammed with animal pelts and jars of amphibians.
Considering Gary Nelson’s biology classroom was bare when he started teaching 31 years ago, it’s obvious when he decides to do something, he goes beyond expectations.
That kind of dedication earned Gary the 2006 Lawrence and Eula Hagie Heritage Award. Endowed by the Hagie daughters, this statewide conservation award is presented annually by INHF. It includes a hand-carved acorn sculpture from Dennis and Linda Schlicht of Center Point and $1,000. Gary was selected from among five strong nominees.
His nominators were Kami Rankin of the Polk County Conservation Board and John Arbuckle, a retired DMACC professor. Among other praises, both noted how Gary inspired countless students with his passion for conservation.
For example, he often brought students to Carney Marsh, a 40-acre site near DMACC’s campus that he helped save from urban development. Gary’s guided marsh treks—complete with knee-high rubber boots—were a source of delight for many. He and his students restored the marsh through hours of invasive species removal and water quality studies.
“I’ve always believed that doing is learning,” Gary says. “If you hear something, you forget. If you see something, you remember. If you do something, you understand.”
Gary also founded and advised DMACC’s award-winning Environmental Conservation Club, planted a four-acre campus prairie and organized Earth Day activities. Off the job, he wrote a self-guiding brochure for Margo Frankel Woods State Park and conducted bird surveys for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Gary was diagnosed with lymphoma four years ago, which contributed to his decision to retire in August. Gary says the diagnosis has taught him to cherish each day, “never taking tomorrow for granted.” He donated his $1,000 award to multiple organizations, including two that conduct lymphoma research.
“Gary has an incredible zest for life, conservation and teaching,” notes Mark Ackelson, INHF president. “We’re proud to honor that level of enthusiasm and commitment to life-long learning.”
Read Gary's thank you letter to all involved in the Hagie Heritage Award process.