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  • December 12th, 2017

PASSING OF A GIANT

By Joel M. Vance
Let’s give him a few weeks and make it an even 100. That’s how old Bill Crawford would have been on his next birthday. Bill Crawford died December 7 after a short bout of pneumonia from which he was apparently recovering and was due to be released from the hospital in a few days. He lunched and had dinner with two of his sons, but a few hours later peacefully slipped away, ending a life that spanned the entire history of Missouri’s remarkable conservation program.
Bill was born August 30, 1918, in Howard County, on a farm not far from Fayette, so he was several months shy of 100, but already was planning for a celebration at the century mark—he wanted to have a big celebration at Columbia’s Tiger Hotel. It’s too bad that event won’t happen because, had it happened, Bill would’ve been the life of the party, telling stories of 100 years of life, always fascinating, always informative, and always fun to listen to—-the way he had been for the first 99 years of that century.
The Tiger Hotel had special significance for Bill because it was there in 1935 that 100 conservation dedicated sportsmen gathered to create what became the Conservation Federation, a group that would spearhead a drive to take Missouri wildlife conservation out of politics forever. Among the 100 was 17-year-old Bill Crawford. The Federation has gone on to become the most powerful voice for outdoor conservation in the state, a consortium of many conservation groups and private individuals dedicated to taking care of the state’s enviable outdoor treasures.
As a young man, Bill carried petitions in 1935 which ultimately resulted in Missouri’s fish wildlife and forestry program being jerked from the sleazy clutches of politicians and established in the state constitution, its funding dedicated and its authority free from interference by those who would abase natural resources for their greedy purposes.
In a June, 2017, conversation with Sara Parker Pauley, director of the Conservation Department, Bill reflected on his early involvement with conservation: “Dad had about 3,000 posters to put out, so we bought a 1935 Chevrolet and drove all over the county putting up posters on telephone poles and in post offices. We were early birds and there to help the cause.”
Bill went on to graduate with a master’s degree in biology from the University of Missouri and joined the Conservation Department in 1942. He became chief of the Department’s Wildlife Research Section (a position he would hold for 34 years until his retirement in 1983) and recruited and hired a cadre of wildlife biologists unlike any in the country. Most of them became nationally recognized experts in their field and Missouri’s innovative wildlife projects resulted in such triumphs as the restoration of white tailed deer and wild turkeys to where Missouri now ranks nationally near the top of hunting for both species—near oblivion before Bill Crawford and pioneers like him came to rescue them. But deer and turkeys were just the tip of the iceberg. River otters, giant Canada geese, and other restoration projects followed with notable success. Still in the works are efforts to salvage something of Missouri’s tallgrass prairie heritage, with prairie chickens as the cornerstone.
Typically, Bill Crawford was a pioneer in prairie preservation. He and fellow biologist Don Christisen founded the Missouri Prairie Foundation, a group which has bought a series of native prairie remnants scattered across what used to be a third of the state, covered by warm season grasses and irreplaceable forbs. It takes just a few hours of walking across one of these prairie areas listening to the wind rustling the tall bluestem and Indian grass, enjoying the incomparable beauty of prairie wildflowers and seeing the grace of a hunting marsh hawk to become a convert to the necessity of preserving prairie.
Bill told a story, which may have been embellished a bit, but was too juicy not to pass along. It seems that he and Don Christisen were trying to get money from a wealthy out-of-state donor for prairie preservation. They met her for dinner somewhere in southwest Missouri, took her for a tour of a remnant prairie, and then took her to dinner where they plied her with cocktails (it seems that the old gal was fond of her evening toddy). Before the jolly trip was ended, she had pledged funds which resulted in the purchase of about 12,000 acres of native prairie.
Two years ago, Bill reserved a table at the annual Missouri Prairie Foundation banquet to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of MPF in 1966 and, coincidentally Bill’s 98th birthday. He asked me to sit with him and seven other guests. It was a signal honor, like being knighted, or being seated as a cherished guest at a state dinner. I was overwhelmed that he would pick me out of all the possible people he could’ve invited. He liked what I write and often told me so, but any respect he had for my scribbling was not nearly as intense as the respect I had for Bill Crawford. I was awed by the man.
It always took time for Bill to make his way to his front row seat at Boone County Historical Society events because he had to stop repeatedly along the way to talk with people he knew. Once, I said to him, “Bill, you’re looking great.”
“As long as I take the pills,” he joked. Maybe he didn’t need pills in his later years (we all do) but mostly he had, in abundance, what kept him young— an insatiable desire to know, to learn, and to teach us kids what conservation meant and how to take care of it. He is credited with creating the Missouri Natural Areas program in 1977, an honor he shared with the late John Wylie, who became state forester and then the chief of the Conservation Department’s Natural History Section (later Division).
Bill became a Master Conservationist in 2010, honored by the Conservation Commission as among the best of the best, and soon will be a member of the Missouri Conservation Hall of Fame, an honor reserved for those legends who have passed on. That was only one of many honors Bill gathered during his long lifetime including the presidency of the Wildlife Society, the professional organization for conservationists.
Bill was married twice. He married his first wife, Midge, in 1942. She died in 1993 after 51 years of marriage. Bill remarried to Jimmie Brown in 1996. She died in 2006. The Crawford clan is a large one comprised of four children with Midge, a dozen grandchildren and a half-dozen great-grandchildren. His dear friend, Carolyn Doyle, sums up Bill this way: “Bill was an avid singer, dancer, hunter, trombonist, historian, model T owner, and MU fan. He was also a pretty good cook. Most of all, he loved people and was always ready to shake a hand, strike up a conversation, and pitch in to help.”
Of all Bill Crawford’s civic ventures, and there were many, none was more dear to his heart than the restoration of the Blind Boone piano. John William (Blind) Boone as the name implies was a sightless musical genius, born in 1864. He was the son of a slave, and a child prodigy on the piano. Exploited by various adults as a child, but also helped along in his musical training by more enlightened adults, he traveled from town to town giving musical concerts and gradually gaining experience in all forms of music. By the beginning of the 20th century, Blind Boone was famous and well-to-do, so well off that by 1913 he had donated $180,000 to various charities, churches and other outlets.
The piano dates to 1891. It is a custom-made Chickering, which, given its present day magnificence, belies the fact that it had fallen into disrepair and was in danger of being lost to history when Bill Crawford and the Boone County Historical Society got involved in its restoration— which would not have happened had not Crawford donated $25,000 to the project.
Today, the magnificent restored, gleaming oak grand piano is in the Historical Society building, the construction of which also owes much to Crawford’s generosity and sponsorship. More than a decorative art object, which it is, the piano is put to use a number of times each year in concerts featuring various styles of music ranging from ragtime to classical, and featuring musicians from talented amateurs to seasoned professionals. Not two months before his death he and his son Todd announced another $25,000 gift to the Historical Society’s Endowment’s General Fund.
Bill’s long time close friend, retired publisher of the Columbia Tribune, Hank Waters, said this about Bill’s contribution in a Historical Society newsletter: “Bill’s initial gift was essential to the resurrection of the historical instrument. Every note we love so much heralds his legacy. I can testify from close observation every note thrills the donor the most.”
Bill had a front row seat reserved for all of the musicales presented by the Historical Society and periodically would be called on to tell about the history of the Blind Boone piano and how it came to be restored. Bill liked to talk and once given a microphone it was hard to get it away from him. One night, not that long ago, Bill leaned against the piano that he had so lovingly (and expensively) had restored and sang an old pop tune, maybe “Sunny Side of the Street” (I don’t remember which one). He sounded great, slick for a young man, not to mention one in his 90s. If, indeed, that was the song that Bill sang it’s appropriate, because Bill never saw any side of any street that wasn’t sunny, and if there were shadows he found a way to drive them away.

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