If You Meet a Living Legend, You Better Get to Know Him

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An old grizzled editor told me 50 years ago that during my career I should always to be on the lookout for real life heroes. “If you are lucky, you might get to know at least one in your life. If so, spend time with them. You will never regret it,” I was told.

During my 46 years in Wyoming, I have known many great men and women around the state who achieved national and international stature.

Here in my hometown, despite being a small town full of big characters, two men stand tall as I look back on my Lander-based career.

The first was the late Paul Petzoldt, founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School. He truly pioneered how everybody in the world now views as the correct way to treat wilderness and how to behave in the backcountry. Paul died in 1999 at the age of 91.

The other was the late Tom Bell, who died Aug. 30 in Lander at the age of 92.

Although somewhat small in stature, Bell was a giant when it came to his impact on the state of Wyoming over the past half century. His impact will continue into the future as the most prominent environmentalist in our state’s history.

As a 24-year old publisher of the Wyoming State Journal, I met Tom back in 1970. He was both as a news source and a printing customer.

He was such a visionary. He saw things that nobody else did. He was outraged when he saw people putting up fences on public land, which bottled up the animals trying to migrate from summer to winter ranges. He saw ranchers wantonly killing golden and bald eagles with a seemingly “wink-wink” approval from authorities.

Against this perceived good ole boy club, Bell pretty much stood alone as a David against Goliath. His little newspaper was often a lonely but strident voice against these transgressions.

He mortgaged the family ranch and sold all his cattle to keep High Country News going. I had partners to answer to and they were always asking me why was I not collecting these past due printing bills from HCN? I had no answer. I did try to collect the money from Tom but the money was just not there. I felt it was more important that he keep publishing.

When time ran out on him financially, he appealed to his readers and they sent in enough money to keep the newspaper going and thankfully for me, pay that long overdue printing bill.

One of the most amazing coincidences in my newspaper career was watching and reporting on the incredible battle of wills between Bell and then-Wyoming Gov. Stan Hathaway.

The coincidence is that both men served on bombers in World War II. Under other circumstances, you would have thought the two men could have been friends, sharing war stories and thanking each other’s lucky stars for surviving such harrowing military careers.

But, alas, no way. Ultimately, they seemed to detest each other.

Bell thought Hathaway had sold out to the ranching and mineral interests. Hathaway thought he was a good steward trying to keep Wyoming growing and financially afloat.

History treats both men with dignity and honor. Yet they could not have been more opposed in their philosophies back in the day. It was ugly. And neither would give in.

At some point, the environmental wars took too big a toll on Tom, and he moved to Oregon in the late 1970s. In the mid-1980s, I recruited him back to Lander to be editor of our Wind River News and to produce a series of historical editions to commemorate our town’s centennial. It was sure good to get him back here. He subsequently did some amazing historical work for the local museum. He became a local leader in getting rid of a bad Museum director and restoring our historical facilities.

Lots of other stories have been written recently about Bell since his passing but these are the ones that come to my mind as someone who dealt with him for almost a half century.

Tom was a deeply spiritual man who prayed constantly. He was a good husband, father and grandfather. But most of all, he loved this state and he fought his hardest to protect it.

I am sure that when he met his maker on Aug. 30, he reported that he had done his best to preserve the Lord’s beautiful creation called Wyoming.

Check out Bill Sniffin’s columns at www.billsniffin.com. He is a longtime Wyoming journalist from Lander who has written six books. His newest is “Wyoming at 125,” which is now on sale at fine bookstores. His books are available at www.wyomingwonders.com.