Conservation's Fifth Director Retires

By Tom Cwynar | December 2, 1996
From Missouri Conservationist: Dec 1996

Conservation Department Director Jerry J. Presley is retiring. Presley has headed the Conservation Department since January 1988. He is the fifth director in the 60-year history of the agency.

Presley's 39-year career with the Conservation Department spans a time of agency expansion, which was given a tetherball boost by the passage of the 1976 1/8 of one percent sales tax for conservation.

The tax, a mandate from the people to enhance the protection of the state's fish, forest and wildlife resources, funded the acquisition of more public lands for recreation, the construction of community fishing lakes, the building of nature centers and a wealth of programs to manage and protect both game and non-game species.

During his nine years as director, Presley steered the Conservation Department as it grew and evolved into one of the top fish and wildlife agencies in the nation.

"The mere fact that I'm only the fifth director says a lot," Presley said. Directors of other state conservation agencies, he explained, come and go every time the governor changes, making it difficult to maintain continuity and leadership.

In recognition of the strength and leadership of the Missouri Conservation Department, Presley has served for the last year as president of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, which has brought him into contact with a worldwide slate of conservation groups.

Presley said that as he travels around the country he finds other agencies are envious of the Missouri Department of Conservation's freedom from political manipulation, of the strong feelings Missourians have about natural resources and of the Conservation Department's financial resources, made possible by concerned taxpayers.

"Anytime I go anywhere else, I feel good about being here," he said.

Missouri All The Way

Presley was born in St. Louis and grew up at Low Wassie, east of Winona, Missouri. He was raised by his grandmother and had to perform much of the work around the house.

"We were fairly poor," Presley said. "But we always had big gardens and canned a lot. We raised chickens and a hog or two and a cow for milk."

Presley grew up close to the land. As a young boy he lugged home catfish, perch and green sunfish from local farm ponds and hunted for quail, squirrel and rabbits. He also trapped, mostly for possum and skunks, but he also nabbed a few mink, rabbits and weasel.

"Big game wasn't as plentiful back then," Presley said. "I was a sophomore in high school when I saw my first deer, and I didn't see my first turkey until I was a senior."

When he was in high school, Presley's best friend's father was a forest ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, and he took advantage of that connection to get a job fighting forest fires.

"Getting to know that forest ranger - a really nice man - I thought that maybe someday that might be a pretty nice job," Presley said.

But first came some oil field "roughnecking" in Texas, an attempt at Class D major league baseball and the military. The Korean War began, and Presley joined the Navy aviation branch, where he served four years.

Eligible for the GI Bill after discharge, Presley obtained a degree in forestry from the University of Missouri, Columbia. The new graduate had several employment offers, but he teamed up with the Conservation Department as Assistant District Forester in Ellington, so he could remain near his ailing grandmother.

Presley performed each job he did admirably and moved quickly through Conservation Department ranks. He was appointed state forest land supervisor in 1964, assistant state forester in 1969 and state forester in 1977. In 1986, he was appointed assistant director of the Conservation Department and became director in 1988.

"I never set any goal that I would one day be director of this department," Presley said, "but I always believed that when I went to a job and did it well that I could move up to the next higher level. My main goal was to keep bettering myself."

"And I really can't take credit for it all," he said, "I eventually ended up being director thanks to good luck and to support from a lot of people."

A People Person

During his career, Presley built a reputation as a people person. During a stint as district forester, he was instructed to load up his family and move to Shannon County to try to bolster public confidence in the Conservation Department.

"Neither my wife nor I was thrilled about moving. It put a lot of stress on the family, having to go into a totally new community and make new friends, but we made the move and it worked out."

Presley said he joined the local Rotary Club and Lions Club, and he joined and eventually managed the Eminence baseball team. In addition to getting personally involved in the community, he kept his workers focused on their job and donated time and equipment for community projects, such as stringing the town's Christmas lights.

"When they promoted me to Jefferson City," Presley said, "folks came up and said, 'We finally get someone we like and can get along with and they move you.'"

As Conservation Department director, Presley continued to maintain good public relations. "I've always tried to be a people's director," he said. "I accept a lot of invitations to go places and give talks at dedications and groundbreakings and things like that."

Conservation Department employees have long been aware of his friendly, easy-going manner. His office door has always been open to employees, and when workers see him in the hall, it's always "Hey, Jerry," not "Hello, Mr. Presley."

Presley said that when he was appointed director he told reporters that his number-one priority was to keep the support of the people and justify their passage of the 1976 conservation sales tax amendment.

"I'm not a visionary," Presley said, "although we have people with great vision within the Conservation Department. What I have done, during my time as director, is to keep the boat in the water and keep it from sinking."

But he also kept that ship moving steadily along. One of his priorities was long-range planning. The Conservation Department did not have a strategic plan when he became director and he quickly set about putting one in place. "It didn't come easy; we struggled with it," he said, "but we got it done. Now we know where we are going and how we are going to get there."

He also revived the idea for the Streams for the Future, which links the Conservation Department with river users and streamside landowners to protect and enhance our valuable waterways.

Presley considers himself first and foremost a team player. "I believe in it," he said. "We need a director, but we have such a wonderful group of people and leaders in the Conservation Department that this outfit is going to go forward - no matter what."

Why Retire? Why Now?

"I'll have close to 39 years in," Presley said. "That's a long time in any person's life, and I would like to retire while I still feel I have a lot of credibility with Department personnel, the commissioners, our elected officials, including our governor, and many organizations."

Presley turns 66 in December and says he is blessed with good health which will help him enjoy more outdoor time after retirement. "It seemed like the higher I moved in the organization," he said, "the less time I have to spend in the outdoors doing what I like to do."

What he especially likes to do is fish for goggle-eye. "My wife likes to fish, and we like to get down on the Gasconade or the Current or the Jack's Fork and catch goggle-eye. I think they are the best eating fish there are."

Presley said his family, including his wife, Bonnie, daughter, Nanci Beck, son, Jeffrey, and his five grandchildren will be glad to see him retire, so he can spend more time with them.

"When my children were growing up was when I was really busy, devoting a lot of time to a demanding job," he said. "Sometimes I would go to work early in the morning and wouldn't come back from firefighting until the middle of the night. Then I'd leave again in the morning before my kids woke up.

"My wife, Bonnie - bless her heart - sometimes ended up being mom and dad to the kids. She would fix me a meal of fried chicken and all the fixings and bring it to where I was working. She brought the kids, too and would say to them, 'By the way, I want to introduce you to your daddy.'"

Although he will no longer direct the Conservation Department, Presley said he intends to remain busy and involved.

"I'll sit back for a while and see how my life shapes up," he said, "but I don't think I'll become stagnant. I might find another job. Another option is volunteering. There's a lot of need out there at hospices, veteran's homes and the like."

Although the baton is being passed to a new director, Presley said the abundant natural resources of this state will continue to be in good hands, thanks to the talented people within the Conservation Department and the high level of support for conservation shown by the public and by elected officials.

"There comes a time when people should step aside and let some new blood take over," he said. "Right now, we're pretty much on track with all the goals and objectives and programs in place. And we have the confidence of the people of this state. What better time for me to leave?"

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Patrick Kipp
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Block
Circulation - Laura Scheuler