Nebraska's Bill Baxter Leaves A Legacy
Baxter motioned for his son to come to his bedside. In a weak voice, he asked Bill Jr. to go outside, drive around the place, come back and give him a report. The younger Baxter, who lives in Raleigh, N.C., had been making evening reports of the wildlife activity on the farm to his dad for more than a week. It was early February. Death was near, but the elder Baxter remained a committed, curious wildlife biologist.
Bill Jr. climbed into his dad's pickup and drove to a spot on the 320-acre farm where a pond recently had been constructed. A large herd of deer was grazing in a six-acre soybean field adjacent to the pond. He grabbed his binoculars, slipped out of the truck and found a comfortable place from which to watch the deer.
Bill Jr. noticed about 40 small, dark blobs on the ground behind the deer. He trained his binoculars on one. It was a pheasant. Moments later, the entire flock took flight.
"They all got up cackling and flew off together," he recalled. "All except one. It came down to where I was and flew right past me. Then it turned and went west into the setting sun. I thought, 'Gosh, I can see why my dad loves this place so much.'"
The younger Baxter, eager to report the sighting of those deer and pheasants to his father, returned to the farmhouse. There he learned that his father had just died. Cancer offers an unusual olive branch. The certainty of death often sparks a desire to set one's house in order and sets in motion plans for dispersing what has been accumulated during a lifetime.
The elder Baxter, who died Feb. 5, 2007 at the age of 67, retired as a Nebraska Game and Parks Commission wildlife biologist a year earlier after learning that his illness was terminal. He didn't have much financial baggage.
"Bill was an average guy like you and me," said David Bue, Pheasant Forever's director of development. "He didn't make a ton of money in his profession. He wasn't what society would consider financially wealthy. All he really had to his name financially was that farm."
Bill Jr. always had assumed that he and his two stepsisters would one day inherit the farm near Milligan in Saline County. But his father had devised a unique plan. After getting the idea from Phyllis, his wife of 35 years, Bill Sr. told his son that the farm would be given to Pheasants Forever.
"When Dad told me what he was planning," Bill Jr. said, "I thought, 'Gosh, I love that place. I want to hunt there. I'd like my kids to hunt there. I can't imagine that he's just going to give this farm away.' "
Bill Jr. knew that his father was in lockstep with the conservation philosophies of Pheasants Forever. The elder Baxter was among the nation's leading pheasant biologists years before Pheasants Forever came into existence.
"Bill Baxter was one of the country's pheasant godfathers," said Pete Berthelsen of Elba, NE, senior field coordinator for Pheasants Forever and a longtime friend of the Baxter family. "He was among about five people in that class."
When Pheasants Forever was formed nearly 25 years ago, Bill Sr. was quick to realize he had a strong ally. "Dad was a real leader in habitat conservation," Bill Jr. said. "His real love was the outdoors, but his specialty was pheasants. I remember going with him in the state truck out by Lexington, NE. He was doing a study on the effects of DDT on pheasant eggs. I helped him search for pheasant nests and rode with him in that truck all summer."
Even though Bill Jr. understood why his father held Pheasants Forever in such high esteem, it took awhile for him to come to terms with the idea that the organization one day would own the Baxter family farm.
It was March 2006, and Bill Sr. would live for 11 more months. Bill Jr. took him to see the doctor, and on the drive home the elder Baxter once again said that he was giving the farm to Pheasants Forever. "He told me he had already talked to an attorney and had it drafted up," the younger Baxter said. "He said, 'I've invested a lot of my time and passion in that place. I want kids to be able to see it and learn from it. This profession has given me a great life and a wonderful career, and I want to give something back. I've figured out a way for you to enjoy it for the rest of your life. After that, it will be transferred to Pheasants Forever. They can help with the conservation. They can continue that legacy even when you're not here.'"
The spring snow goose migration was in full swing that afternoon, and the elder Baxter asked his son to pull off the road near a pond along Highway 41. Father and son watched in awe as the geese milled about. "Man, this is what life is all about," Bill Sr. said as they left the clamoring geese.
The Baxters arrived home, but as Bill Jr. started to pull into the lane he was stopped by a request from his father. "Why don't you drive around the section one more time," the elder Baxter asked.
It was then that Bill Jr. realized why it was so important to his father that the conservation efforts he had poured into his farm for 25 years be continued. He finally understood why his father had chosen Pheasants Forever to guard his farm -- his outdoor laboratory -- and to protect his conservation investments.
"He asked me again if I would help him with his plan for the farm," Bill Jr. said. "I told him I'd be honored to help."
A few weeks later, however, the younger Baxter was jolted by another request from his father. The farm was not yet paid for, and Bill Sr. wanted no financial responsibilities to be passed along to Pheasants Forever.
"He wanted me to take out a life insurance policy so the farm would be paid off in the event of my death," Bill Jr. said. "That really ticked me off. He said, 'Hey, if you don't want to do this deal, that's fine. But that's the hand you've been dealt. If you want to be in the game, great. If you don't, I'll understand. But I'll be disappointed."
It took awhile, but the younger Baxter finally purchased a life insurance policy. "My dad was a pretty smart character," Bill Jr. said. "He knew how to work me a little bit. I finally accepted his vision. He wanted it for youth hunting, and he hooked me in. He made me realize that I could make a difference. He gave me the keys to the car, but I had to keep it full of gas and take care of the maintenance."
Following the death of Bill Sr., the farm was placed in a trust that is managed by the Baxter family. Phyllis, who first proposed the idea, died a few months later. In the future, when Bill Jr. passes, all the trust assets will be drained and the land will be given to Pheasants Forever.
"No strings at all," said Bill Jr., who is 43. "Pheasants Forever owns it when I die."
Berthelsen will lead a team of Pheasants Forever biologists that will chart the course for the farm's conservation practices. Bill Sr. expressly ordered that his farm be used to tutor young hunters, and Berthelsen will help organize youth hunting clinics and mentored hunts for pheasants. The younger Baxter hopes the programs can be expanded to include youth hunts for deer and turkeys.
Although Bill Jr. wouldn't reveal how much money is still owed on the farm, he did say the amount was "substantial."
"It's not just something where we zoom in and go pheasant hunting or deer hunting and have no worries," he said. "There is still a business to run. Although the majority of the farm is in CRP, we have crops on part of it. Those financial obligations have to be met."
Bue, Pheasants Forever's director of development, said the organization has received smaller gifts of land in the past.
"But this is our most significant gift of land," Bue said. "Because of Bill Sr.'s relationship with the organization and his passion for the outdoors and habitat, it is very meaningful."
Pheasants Forever officials are aware of the responsibility they now shoulder as they prepare to direct habitat efforts on the farm that would draw a nod of approval from the elder Baxter. But they are eager to take up the task.
"This is what we do," Bue said. "It's our mission. We are uniquely qualified and situated to handle that property the way Bill wanted it to be handled."
Bill Jr. said there was an underlying reason why his father made such an important gift to Pheasants Forever. "The organization is something he believed in," Baxter said. "He admired its values ? what it has done in terms of conservation and land management ? and what it will continue to do. My father was always a leader in his field. He thought he could challenge others to give gifts of land. He wanted to pave a new road and hoped others would follow it."
That, we hope, will be Bill Sr.'s other legacy... inspiring others to follow his example.
Story By: Larry Porter
You Can Help, Too!
If you're inspired by this story and Bill Baxter's dream, please consider visiting with us about how you might make a lasting contribution to Pheasants Forever and our wildlife habitat mission. With great passion and steadfast dedication, we can join the battle against rampant loss of open space, fight to protect wildlife habitat and preserve the hunting heritage. And we know we will succeed ? if we follow Bill Baxter's example. Please, join us and act now.
Pheasants Forever is aggressively looking to partner with landowners to identify opportunities to acquire and accept donations of property. Those properties that are significantly valuable to our habitat conservation mission may be held and managed by Pheasants Forever or our new organization, The Forever Land Trust. In many cases, these contributions may also provide significant tax benefits for donors. Perhaps you or someone you know would be interested in leaving a legacy such as the one that has most definitely been left by our long-time friend, Bill Baxter.