EUREKA, S.D. (KELO) — On a beautiful morning, in a quietly beautiful place, friends and family came by the dozens from afar Friday to honor two good people.
They shared in the kind words and good jokes about John and Vera Cooper at Odessa Lake, some 10 miles northeast of Eureka in McPherson County.
The occasion was the dedication of a waterfowl access point in the names of not only the Coopers but dozens of other donors, too, at the state Odessa 1 game-production area.
John, a former secretary for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department for 12 years, helped raise $440,000 for Ducks Unlimited.
With Vera beside him, John described the dedication to KELOLAND News as “…The culmination of a lot of effort on behalf of both of us. No single person sets out on a career unless he’s got support or she’s got support from their family. I owe somebody a lot of praise for being with me on all of this stuff. She kind of helped keep me grounded and sometimes would get after me if I got a little upset with certain things, sometimes politics. She kind of kept me grounded.”
He said recognition wasn’t their goal. “It really makes us feel good that the folks felt enough about our effort to honor us with this dedication.”
John has put 44 years into conservation, first as an agent in Minot, North Dakota, and then senior agent in Pierre, for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, covering the Dakotas and Nebraska. Next he was South Dakota GFP secretary, first for then-Governor Bill Janklow for eight years, followed by four years for then-Governor and now U.S. Senator Mike Rounds, and later for eight years as a Game, Fish and Parks Commission member.
For decades the Coopers kept a get-away place at Eureka to kick back. That’s where DU’s development director for South Dakota and Nebraska, Terry Kostinec, met with John three years ago to talk — with some rye whiskey helping lubricate the conversation — about trying to raise money for the organization.
Odessa Lake also happens to be where John wrote one of his first tickets as a federal agent. Two duck hunters had killed too many canvasbacks and tried to leave five birds behind, stuffed down a badger hole.
Cooper served two tours of duty in Vietnam as a member of an in-shore undersea warfare group. He showed no fear as a wildlife agent dealing alone with groups of hunters or anglers.
Likewise when it came to speaking out for the prairie, whether in South Dakota or Washington, D.C., or anywhere else.
“He’s that person up there on that hill,” Kostinec said, “representing this new conservation movement, the new battles that are before us, and finding ways to listen to both sides, get them to understand each other, and then finding those places where we can find compromise and work on those compromises, work on the win-win situations.”
When their turn to talk came, John joked that he had pared his speech to 45 minutes. Vera reached over to take away the mic. John wouldn’t let go and put his free hand on her shoulder.
“This will be the one that will help you,” he told the small crowd, some seated, some standing on the prairie grass. “She’ll save you.”
Vera replied, “I said oh no, they have a microphone.”
Responded John, “It’s hard to buy respect.”
Later, he talked specifically about the importance of his wife, children and grandchildren. About Vera, he said, “She’s everything to me. I can’t thank her enough.”
He said he had always loved waterfowl, even back in southern California as a boy. After moving to Minot, he said they fell in love with the people and the wetlands.
“The prairie is hard to get out of your heart once you get it in,” he said.