A duck decoy rested on Greg Heil’s coffin and pheasant and wild turkey feathers adorned the flower arrangements nearby — testament to Heil’s love of hunting and the outdoors.
Not as obvious to the 600 people who paid their respects at his wake were Heil’s tireless efforts over the years to give something back to the conservation community he so deeply loved.
Heil, 61, of New Prague, died Dec. 24 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. He was one of Minnesota’s faceless conservationists who toil quietly behind the scenes — usually with little or no recognition. Whether helping kids build wood duck houses, or teaching them firearms safety, or helping run the local Minnesota Waterfowl Association banquet to raise money for wildlife habitat, Heil tackled the tasks with gusto.
“He was one of those selfless guys, always the first to help with any project, and always did more than his share,” said Chuck Kartak, 62, of North Branch, a longtime friend and hunting buddy.
Said John Wolf, 61, of New Prague, another longtime friend: ‘‘He was fun-loving and had a great sense of humor.” And a roaring laugh.
Heil taught firearms safety and hunter education for more than 30 years, and was board member of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association and longtime member of the Montgomery and New Prague sportsman’s clubs.
His family figures he helped youths build more than 600 wood duck houses during annual events.
“He enjoyed the kids and wanted to pass on his love of hunting to the next generation,” said his wife, Mary.
Dave Schad, deputy commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, was a friend who made several hunting trips with Heil.
“He’s one of those guys who would give you the shirt off their back,” Schad said.
For Heil, wildlife conservation wasn’t just something to talk about.
“He lived it and breathed it,” Schad said. “There’s very few people who end up doing the heavy lifting, and Greg was one of those guys.”
He was treasurer for the annual Minnesota Waterfowl Association’s Scott-LeSueur Chapter banquet — the largest in the state.
“He was very dedicated, very hands-on, meticulous,” said Brad Nylin, MWA executive director. “He was a great guy. People are devastated.”
Said Kartak: “He had an incredible work ethic, infectious laugh, zest for life and his selfless humble service to others was a model. His passing leaves a hole that many volunteers will need to fill.”
Heil grew up in Montgomery.
“He started hunting and fishing as a kid with his dad and grandpa, and he continued to deer hunt with the same group for almost 50 years,” Mary Heil said. “He loved it all.”
Heil and his wife moved to New Prague more than 40 years ago. Heil hunted waterfowl, pheasants, turkey and deer and enjoyed trap shooting.
“He was always a very happy guy, and anyone who new Greg remembers his laugh,” Mary Heil said.
He lived life to the fullest and died with few regrets, his family said. He learned in September that he had pancreatic cancer.
“When he found out he said, “Boy, am I glad I had fun,’ ” his wife said.
Said Kartak: “The cancer took his body but not his spirit, and we will carry that spirit on.”