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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Storm Lake's first couple of conservation left a high-flying legacy

Monday, April 14, 2008

Virginia Crocker thrived on birds and books. "That was her whole life," said Virginia's long time caregiver, Joann Samsel.

Virginia died November 11, 2007, at Buena Vista Manor, in Storm Lake, where she had lived since 2001. Many Iowa Ornithologists' Union members and other conservationists will remember her and her husband, Ed, who died in 1987, as tireless advocates for birds, the environment, and education.

That commitment will continue even after the Crockers' deaths, in the form of a $5,000 bequest that Virginia made to the IOU.

People who knew the Crockers probably were not surprised at the generous gift. The couple supported a wide cross-section of conservation groups, and had contributed to the college funds of a number of young friends and acquaintances.

Their modest home was crammed with blooming plants and nature books, and the walls were lined with wildlife art. Boxes of Carousel trays filled with Ed's slides lined the shelves - ready at a moment's notice for the couple to give a conservation program for a school, service club, or conservation group.

Chairs, end tables, the floor - even Virginia's cherished grand piano - were piled with books. "Every place I sit, I have something to read," Virginia once joked to a visitor.

Her love of nature and books came partly from her father, a Snow Hill, Md., country doctor who found time to teach his daughter about the natural world. He also brought her books whenever he returned from a trip to a medical meeting in Baltimore.

A 1935 graduate of Wellesley College, Virginia was teaching high school chemistry in Maryland when she met Ed in 1936. Ed taught vocational agriculture and later worked for the U. S. Soil Conservation service. They were married in 1942. (Virginia later confided to college friends that it was the happiest day of her life.)

During World War II, Ed served more than two years in the U. S. Army in India. Virginia, meanwhile, earned her wings as a civilian spotter watching for enemy planes along Maryland's eastern shore.

Years later, she could still laugh about the time she and a companion reported a squadron of enemy aircraft that turned out to be turkey vultures.

The couple moved to Storm Lake in 1947. "It looked pretty barren to me," Virginia recalled later. An Iowa blizzard greeted them.

But the Crockers quickly adapted to Iowa, where Ed preached the gospel of soil conservation and Virginia immersed herself in birds and gardening. The Crockers also conducted Breeding Bird Surveys for nearly two decades. Virginia is credited with two first Iowa records: a Western Tanager at Storm Lake in 1969 and a Green-tailed Towhee at Storm Lake in 1975.

To demonstrate their belief in the compatibility between agriculture and wildlife, the couple bought a 40-acre farm near Alta. Ed and his tenant installed demonstration plots with grassed waterways, terraces, strip cropping, crop rotations, and other soil conservation measures.

The Crockers also advocated urban conservation. They described their back yard as a jungle, inviting birds to nest or feed in highbush cranberry bushes, sunflowers, or even Virginia's garden.

At Virginia's November 23 memorial service in Storm Lake, former neighbor children - now grown - recalled how Virginia sometimes scolded them for trying to catch nightcrawlers in her yard. "Leave them alone!" she admonished. "They're for the birds." Apples and walnuts were reserved for the wildlife, as well. "I don't kill spiders, either," Virginia once reminded a visitor who dared to think she was a bit overprotective. Virginia's favorite poem - "Trees," by Joyce Kilmer - was read at her memorial service.

Although Ed Crocker held several local, state, and national offices with the Izaak Walton League, both Crockers disagreed vehemently with the League's advocacy of a dove hunting season in Iowa. The couple for many years helped with an Ikes conservation camp for kids in the Storm Lake area, but they urged more emphasis on conservation and less on hunting.

Unlike another IOU legend, Gladys Black, who detested cats, Virginia Crocker loved felines. "I never met a cat I didn't like," she confided. She and Ed provided the "Crocker Cat Cafeteria" on their front porch for hungry strays or neighbors' pets.

In their later years as the Crockers were picking out their grave stones, Virginia asked for an etching of a Canada goose as a testimony to her love of birds. To the Crockers' chagrin - and great amusement - the engraver was not a birder. Her stone at the Buena Vista Memorial Park Cemetery in Storm Lake boasts an image of a duck!

(Note: Larry Stone first met Ed and Virginia Crocker in the early 1970s, when the Crockers were active in the Izaak Walton League of America, The Nature Conservancy, the Iowa Ornithologists' Union, and other conservation groups that Larry was covering as outdoor writer with the Des Moines Register. Larry and his wife, Margaret, developed a friendship with the Crockers that continued more than 30 years.)


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Thank you for such a lovely account of my aunt and uncle's lives and dedication to conservation and wildlife. They were an inspiration to so many both in Iowa and beyond. We, my family and I, kept in touch with them from the many places overseas where we lived when my father, Charles David Crocker, Ed's younger brother, worked with USAID in agricultural development and conservation. We regularly received cassette tapes from them recording their birding discoveries and the annual bird censuses. Ed also corresponded with and helped my father obtain needed information and materials relating to the agricultural work he was doing in Ghana, Cambodia, Viet Nam and South Korea. Virginia continued her interest in history and antiques which I shared through my work as a graduate student and into a career in the art museum field. I fondly remember them visiting with my parents during an exhibition opening at the now closed Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. I remember the numerous books and other records they had assembled as well as the many photographs and slides. And I hope as many of them as possible were given to appropriate repositories. They constitute a records of the past and their dedication which will too quickly be lost - but I suspect they were not thought to be of much interest or value unfortunately. Again, thank you for such nice tribute to the Crockers, Ed and Virginia.

-- Posted by lindacrockersimmons on Sun, Nov 2, 2014, at 1:13 PM


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