ARLINGTON, MINN. - There in the front row of Don Sauter's funeral service last week sat his beloved German shorthaired pointer, Libby.
It was the perfect touch.
Sauter was a passionate outdoorsman and conservationist from Arlington who treasured the time he spent pheasant and waterfowl hunting with family, friends and hunting dogs. He died in his sleep of a heart attack Jan. 15, two days shy of his 59th birthday -- a robust life cut too short.
Sauter, whose funeral was held in a packed Arlington school gym, might not have been a well-known name in state conservation circles. But seemingly everyone knew him in the Arlington-Green Isle community an hour southwest of the Twin Cities. That's where he grew up, raised a family, taught high school biology for 30-plus years and coached the high school baseball team to two state championships. He was among the many conservationists in Minnesota who work quietly but resolutely -- often with little thanks and no glory -- trying to make this state a better place for wildlife. And for us.
"Most of the wildlife projects we've done in Sibley County have connections to Don,'' said Mike Malling, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who worked with Sauter and his conservation groups many times over the years to acquire or restore wildlife habitat. "He's been a leader. We're really going to miss him.''
The agency likely will name a public wildlife parcel after Sauter, a rare honor, Malling said.
I first met Sauter in 1997 when he ran the Minnesota Waterfowl Association's Woodie Camp, a week-long event that teaches youngsters age 13 to 15 about ducks and duck hunting. Like other volunteers there, he could have been doing something else with his time. Instead, he was giving back.
"The point is to give kids the opportunity to learn from experts the correct way to enjoy the outdoors,'' Sauter told me. "It's a lot more than hunting. That's just part of it. It's enjoying the outdoors.''
He understood the importance of passing that passion for the outdoors to the next generation.
"The future of hunting really depends on these kids,'' he said. Boys and girls. "We're getting rid of the attitude that hunting is for boys and the girls should stay home and do dishes,'' Sauter said 15 years ago.
He volunteered and worked for the Minnesota Waterfowl Association for years, but, with friends Joe Luskey, 77, of Green Isle, and Kermit Terlinden, 65, of Glencoe, left the group when it ran into financial difficulties in 2001. Frustrated because they thought locally raised money should go to local projects, they helped found Conservation Partners of America (CPA). The nonprofit, with about 500 members, works with government agencies and other clubs and groups on wildlife habitat projects in Sibley and McLeod counties.
"I think we're in a crisis,'' Sauter told me in 2004 after we opened the duck season on a wetland the new group helped restore. "It's critical that every hunter get involved if we're going to improve things.''
Words that Sauter lived by.
Last year, the group donated $40,000 to help acquire a parcel of wildlife habitat open for public hunting.
"The group is still thriving,'' Terlinden said. "We've done a lot of projects in this area, and we've just added a fourth chapter.''
Sauter touched many lives, not just those who hunted or fished with him. He taught high school biology and environmental studies for 34 years. "Part of the reason he was a biology teacher was so he could teach kids about the outdoors,'' said his son, Ryan, 32, of Lake Preston, S.D.
He had a quick smile, boundless energy and an optimistic outlook -- that last quality not an easy one for a conservationist in these days of widespread wildlife habitat loss. He was frustrated with the demise he witnessed recently, both in Minnesota and South Dakota, where we hunted pheasants, ducks and snow geese several times.
"He knew wildlife was on a downhill slide,'' Ryan said. "Drain tiling is becoming popular in South Dakota, and he was worried about it.''
But he wasn't willing to give up.
Baseball was another passion. Sauter coached baseball at Sibley East -- the local high school -- for 22 years, had a .715 winning percentage and won state championships in 1994 and 1998. (Son Ryan was on that 1998 team.) He won numerous Coach of the Year honors, and in October was inducted into the Minnesota State High School League Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
He also played baseball and was a baseball umpire and basketball referee for 32 years.
"It's unbelievable the number of people he's touched,'' said Malling.
That was evident at his services. More than 1,000 people attended his visitation at a local church.
"Everyone knew him and everyone loved him,'' said Sheila Henke of Arlington, among the friends who waited in line an hour to see him one last time. "He was a great teacher and had a great rapport with the kids.''
At his funeral the next day at Sibley East school gym, some 500 people joined his dog Libby to say goodbye. At the end of the service, as they wheeled Sauter's coffin out the gym, the crowd -- many in tears -- clapped in rhythm to a recording of John Fogerty's baseball hit, "Centerfield."
"Just to hit the ball and touch 'em all -- a moment in the sun.''
Don would have liked that.
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org