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A Swan Lake Tribute

Updated: Dec 3, 2023


After days and weeks of blue skies and warm temperatures, the feel was a little different. Heavy gray clouds. An occasional mist carried along by a steady breeze out of the northwest. A ducky day. A few blue-winged teal and pintails cruised past in the distance. All of it appropriate to the moment.


Not far from the view of Sumner’s infamous Maxie, the crowd on hand at Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge was impressive. There were locals, friends, wives, sons, daughters, grandchildren, and at least one dog.


Also in attendance were former Conservation Commissioners (Churan, McGeehan, Blair) and the newest Commissioner (Wagner). There was a healthy sampling of folks who have dedicated their lives and careers to wetlands and waterfowl conservation – Baskett, Bell, Flashpoler, Graber, Helmers, Humburg, LaRue, Seek to name a few. Missing were Milonski, Vaught, and Chambers but I know they were there in spirit.


So, on a chilly October morning, led by officials from Ducks Unlimited (DU) and the Fish and Wildlife Service, we gathered together on a levee road for a corresponding pair of happenings, each highlighting the other – a dedication of a completed North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) project and a tribute to an accomplished leader in wetlands and waterfowl conservation, Ken Babcock.


The NAWCA project included restoration of 780 acres (487 acres of wetlands and 293 acres of native grasslands) and the enhancement of another 1,110 acres of existing wetlands. Together, with the help of many public and private partners, this $3 million wetland project, along with its associated uplands, provides vital habitat for migrating waterfowl, shorebirds, and many other wetland-dependent species. A national showcase of what is possible for landscape and wetland restoration and conservation.


I, however, was there mostly because of Ken Babcock, a colleague, friend, and hunting partner. Over 30 years ago I would frequently sit in Ken’s office at the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) where he would impart knowledge, wisdom, advice, and a few stories all with the intent of helping me to do my job better. In recent years, the office is now a duck blind where the lessons continue, the stories flow, the debates are robust, and occasionally, ducks magically fall from the sky.


The rest of you probably know Ken as a key part of the recent Missouri Wetlands Summit, a leading voice and advocate for the newly created Johnny Morris Institute of Fisheries, Wetlands and Aquatic Systems at the University of Missouri, and one of the principal authors of the book Waterfowl Hunting and Wetland Conservation in Missouri.


Ken’s career began in Conway, Arkansas where he received his B.A. degree in biology from Hendrix College in 1965. As the story goes, Ken thought he was destined to become a doctor. Working in a drugstore while in high school for 40 cents an hour, he thought the life of a pharmacist might be good, but he knew the income of the person who wrote the prescriptions might be better. Ken may have also been inspired somewhat by his future father-in-law, who was a local surgeon, or maybe he was just looking to impress someone’s daddy with bold ambition. But all of that changed one day when he encountered some folks at a truck stop hauling cages of Canada geese south out of Missouri from Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Upon learning that you could have a life of adventure and make a living (sort’a) working with wildlife, and after seeing the hard life of a surgeon, wildlife biologist seemed like a better career choice.


After receiving his M.S. degree in wildlife management from Louisiana State University in 1967, he never looked back. He would earn his webbed feet as a waterfowl biologist with Mississippi Game and Fish, and then, after joining MDC in 1970 would serve as a waterfowl research biologist, Wildlife Division Chief, and Assistant Director, retiring for the first time in 1997. True to form, he kept moving forward, joining Ducks Unlimited (DU) where he held a number of titles until he once again retired in 2013 as Senior Director of Conservation. After his final retirement, Ken and wife Betty Rose migrated back to their farm in Missouri near Jamestown where they live the good life, enjoying time with grandchildren, and navigating the challenges life continues to deliver.


DU officials did a nice job of describing Ken’s lifelong contributions, commitment, and passion for waterfowl and wetland conservation, but his daughter, Kathy McCollum and granddaughter Yumia Robben gave us the details about the person, and the context of that commitment embodied in the words – family, faith, and ducks. And having spent my fair share of time in the marsh with Ken, the priority order does shift momentarily, depending on time of the year, the weather, and need. But we also know ultimately, family comes first, regardless of appearances.


In a few modest words to the crowd and later in private conversations, Ken told us how much this tribute meant to him without shining too brightly, always deflecting the spotlight to others.


“This tribute was very humbling, especially since so many of the folks in the crowd, in their own way, are deserving of their own special recognition,” said Ken.


And in a quote far more nuanced than it’s contemporary meaning, Ken reminded us, "If I have seen further or accomplished more than others, it’s because I was standing on the shoulders of giants."


On this day, the giants, whomever and wherever, would give a nod of approval to a life and career well done.


In retirement, Ken remains a passionate advocate for wetlands, waterfowl hunting, and the people who enjoy and benefit from all. He is a life member of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, a member of the National Wild Turkey Federation, and The Wildlife Society. Ken and Betty Rose are also DU Diamond Heritage Sponsors, and a member of DU’s Feather Society.


For many in the wildlife conservation profession, it’s often a one and done proposition. Get a degree or two, develop an expertise, work, retire, and move on. But in Ken’s case, the education, degrees, and all of the subsequent jobs and positions became the underpinning of a career that spanned decades. His work would begin in biology and science but would grow into something far bigger than just ducks. Not limited to a single area of proficiency, Ken would learn and practice the arts of collaboration and leadership. And his legacy can be found in a Missouri wetland, in the skies during migration, and in the eyes and stories of others he has helped and influenced along the way.


As an aside, Ken will tell you how four generations have passed through the wind and wetlands in and around Swan Lake – Ken and Betty Rose, daughters, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. In reality it’s five generations. Another story describes passing through Swan Lake in the early 1970s with his father who was a meat cutter. Upon seeing the thousands and thousands of geese at the refuge his father commented, “I wonder how many pounds of stuffing it would take to prepare all those geese?”


Dan Zekor

(Photo Credit: Dale Humburg)

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