At Sunday’s memorial for Don Lundberg in Waterford, there were many tales of his exploits as a mountaineer, runner, cyclist, and swimmer. Lundberg was an amazing athlete.
It wasn’t unusual for fit runners in their thirties or forties to see Lundberg pass them midway through a 10k race. After a while, many could recognize the slap, slap, slap of his feet as he moved up behind them. Though he was heavy-footed, he sailed by as though he were lighter than air.
What made Lundberg really special was those fit runners were often a quarter century or more younger than he was. Well into his seventies, Don Lundberg left many a younger runner in the dust. He was a winner of too many age-group awards to count.
Remarkable as they were, Lundberg’s athletic feats may have been among his lesser accomplishments. A long-time counselor a Modesto Junior College, he was first and foremost a teacher, mentor, and inspiration. He was also an ardent supporter of nature and wildlife.
It could be said with a fair degree of accuracy that if not for Don Lundberg, the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge might not have been established. The full story of Lundberg’s role is known only to a few.
In the late eighties, Joe Long of Long’s Drugs wanted to contribute to the establishment of a refuge for waterfowl. Like many duck hunters, Long loved nature and wanted to leave a legacy that would help perpetuate the values he had discovered in the natural world.
One condition for Long’s support was a strong contribution from residents who lived near the refuge. The right combination of circumstances came about when land became available near the confluence of the Tuolumne, San Joaquin, and Stanislaus Rivers.
Whether by happy coincidence or some greater mystery, Don Lundberg had only recently given Stanislaus Audubon Society $100,000. The money came with virtually no strings attached, though Lundberg made it known he wanted it to benefit nature and wildlife.
Lundberg’s gift became the catalyst Joe Long required for the purchase of Chrisman Island, an 800 acre parcel just south of Highway 132 along the San Joaquin River. Chrisman Island then became the nucleus of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge.
Today, the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge comprises over 7,000 acres of riparian and wetlands habitat for native wildlife. It has been a major factor in the recovery of a formerly endangered species, the Aleutian Canada Goose. In 2006, biologists working on the refuge recorded the first nesting pair of Least Bell’s Vireos in the Central Valley in 80 years.
Working with volunteers and partners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has planted hundreds of thousands of trees on the refuge, and added hundreds of acres of wetland habitat. River otters, waterfowl, and the endangered Riparian Brush Rabbit are only some of the many beneficiaries of Don Lundberg’s love of nature.
Typically, Lundberg rarely mentioned his generosity. Only a tiny few people knew of his gift. Modesto and unassuming, he seemed interested only in bringing out the best in others. He was truly a hero for our time.