I did not know Rita Poe, but after reading a June 2017 press release from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, it seems that few people did. She died Nov. 16, 2015, in her 27-foot Airstream travel trailer parked in the shadow of the Olympic Mountains. She was 66.
Rita had few friends and no heirs. She spent her final years enjoying nature while traveling around the American West. The only person she had contact with was Nancy Zingheim, the manager at SKP RV Park in Chimacum, Wash., where Rita parked her trailer during the summer of 2015. They spoke only when Rita paid her lot rent.
In September 2015, Rita asked Nancy to be the executor of her will. Nancy agreed. Rita had cancer and died just a few weeks later. Rita gave almost everything, nearly $800,000, to eight national Wildlife Refuges and four other parks across the West. Nancy was stunned by Rita’s final act of generosity.
Rita’s list included three National Wildlife Refuges in her home state of California, with one refuge in each of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Texas. The four others recipients were state and national parks in Texas and Wyoming.
Between December 2015 and April 2017, Nancy researched each refuge and park online. She called with questions to ensure that each refuge and park would live up to Rita’s expectations.
While combing through Rita’s papers and photos, Nancy began to know Rita on a deeper level. Most importantly, she learned what filled Rita’s soul was her love of public lands. Finally, before writing any checks, Nancy planned a 4,000-mile “trip of a lifetime.” She wanted to understand why public lands were so important to Rita.
“I had never heard of a National Wildlife Refuge,” Nancy said. “I wanted the money to go to what Rita would have wanted.”
So in April 2017, Nancy took two weeks’ vacation and headed south in Rita’s truck to visit six of the National Wildlife Refuges on Rita’s list.
At each stop, Nancy asked the refuge manager what was needed and how they could best use the money. Most refuge managers suggested giving it to their respective Friends of the Refuge group, which would enable the money to be used on specific local projects.
At one refuge, they planned to leverage the money as matching funds for a bigger grant. “We want it to be something a visitor like Rita would enjoy,” the manager said.
Nine days and 4,000 miles later, Nancy arrived back home with a true understanding of National Wildlife Refuges, public lands and, perhaps most importantly, Rita. On the open roads of the West, Nancy discovered how the enigmatic Rita could find her peace on public lands.
“Only one person at any of the refuges remembered Rita, and it was because of her Airstream,” Nancy said. “She’d go to the refuges and spend all day taking hundreds of pictures. There weren’t any [photos] of Rita – just the birds and animals she loved.”
“She made me realize that we live in nature, and there are animals all around us,” Nancy said. “Refuges are quiet and peaceful. If you’ve never been, you should visit a refuge and spend some time there for Rita.”
Tracy Casselman, a refuge employee in Idaho didn’t know Rita, but he knows a lot of people like Rita who visit the refuges. He said, “Rita found her peace on public lands. Her generous gift will ensure that more people will enjoy our refuges in her memory.”
Rita asked that she be cremated and that her ashes be spread in nature away from people. Nancy held on to her ashes for months before finding the right spot near her home.
“A friend found the perfect spot,” Nancy said. “The next day, we hiked a mile into the woods and scattered her ashes on a hillside overlooking a lake, the mountains and trees. She can hear the birds she loved. I say hello to her every time I drive past.”
Now that’s a legacy.
Dr. Shalaway can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3 to 4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, live online at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit Scott’s website, www.drshalaway.com, or contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.