Wisconsin lost one of its hardest-working and most fearless conservationists a little more than a week ago when Emily Earley died at age 94.
"In some of my favorite pictures of Emily," said longtime friend Eugene Roark, "she's always holding a rake. And there's a prairie burn in the background."
She died April 16 at the health center in the Capitol Lakes Retirement Residence.
Earley was deeply connected to numerous state environmental organizations and also to the state's rich legacy of conservation, stretching back to friendships with the likes of U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day. Earley was a founder of the conservation group Environment Wisconsin after the first Earth Day in 1970. She was a founding board member of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Conservation Corps and also a member of the founding board of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College in Ashland. In April 2010, Earley was inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame in Stevens Point.
It was just last year when dozens of friends crowded into a meeting room at Capitol Lakes to honor Earley for her induction into the hall of fame. She had not been able to attend the ceremony in Stevens Point so she was honored in Madison. Among those who spoke of Earley's contributions were Gov. Jim Doyle and Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz.
Cieslewicz recalled Earley's formidable skills as a fundraiser and a recruiter of volunteers. "People cross the street when they see her coming," Cieslewicz said to knowing laughter from the audience.
Earley was perhaps most passionate about her work with the Wisconsin chapter of The Nature Conservancy. Roark, who was one of the founders of the organization in Wisconsin in 1960, recalled Earley becoming involved in 1964. The two grew to be close friends and Earley went on to become one of the group's most dynamic leaders. She served as a trustee for 40 years and was one of two women to serve as chair of the board.
Mary Jean Huston, director of The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin, said Earley forever changed the group's work in the state.
It was Earley, she said, who pushed the group to actively manage its lands by burning and restoring prairies and removing invasive species. And she didn't just expect others to do the work. Many, like Roark, fondly recall her in the field with hat and gloves and work clothes and a rake on her shoulder.
Others remember her as a character and someone who lived life head-on. She drove a red Chrysler convertible. She was a devoted sailor, sailing in competitions into her late 80s, crewing on a challenging boat known as an E scow with the Mendota Yacht Club.
Jonathon Ela, who chairs the Natural Resources Board, grew up knowing Earley. He took a couple of trips with her and especially recalls a journey to the Yucatan Peninsula when Earley was in her 70s. They visited a remote Mayan temple in the jungle and Earley's daughter, Susan, warned that the pyramid looked a little to steep and rugged for her mother to climb.
"The fire came out of Emily's ears," Ela said. "And she marched right up that thing."