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University of Missouri

Preserving Nature’s Classroom

Pat Jones hopes to perpetually inspire youngsters with a wonder of nature.

Pat Jones

Hilda “Pat” Jones has been a lifelong conservationist. Her recent $1.6 million donation to MU will endow a named professor in the School of Natural Resources in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and support research into crafting effective youth conservation education programs.

Most mornings, Hilda “Pat” Jones climbs into her John Deere Gator to survey a portion of the 900 acres of prairie, ponds, forests and streams in Callaway County, Missouri, that she has lived on most of her life. Driving the Gator, a half golf cart, half all-terrain vehicle, is Jamie Coe, a forester who is working to restore the land to native grasses and who has worked for Jones and her late husband, Edward “Ted” Jones Jr., for decades. Behind, beside, in front and inside of the vehicle is Gunner, a 5-year-old Jack Russell terrier who is living a life he couldn’t have dreamed of when he was rescued from an animal shelter as a puppy.

Jones donated the land, now called the Prairie Fork Conservation Area, to the Missouri Department of Conservation 17 years ago and recently donated $1.6 million to MU to create a named faculty position and endow a youth conservation educational program at MU. But, at 88, she still lives on the homestead at Prairie Fork, and there is nowhere she’d rather be.

“I liked just walking around the place,” says Jones, BS Ag ’50, of the land she’s lived on for 60 years. She and Ted, whose father founded the Edward Jones investment company, moved to the acreage in 1954, though the land had been in his family since 1933.

Ted, meanwhile, liked to pick up rocks and plant trees. He planted “I don’t know how many of them — a lot,” Jones says, as well as exotic species of flower and bush, which were thought to be beneficial at the time but are now part of an entrenched invasive species problem that Coe and a team of naturalists have spent the past 11 years fighting.

Jones prides herself on having been right on that score all along. She inherited her instincts for preservation from her father, who owned land outside of St. Louis on LaBarque Creek that her family visited on weekends. She says her father never understood buying a piece of beautiful land and then working forever afterward to make it look like something else. “If you like it the way it is, let it alone” was her dad’s motto. And hers.

It was a combination of that philosophy with another maxim — “If you want to keep something forever, give it away” — that led her to donate the land in 1997 to the conservation department. Now it is there for her and everyone, unspoiled, perpetually.

Run jointly with the MU School of Natural Resources, the Prairie Fork Conservation Area, named for the river that runs through it, employs a full-time education coordinator who hosts busloads of school children during the warm months of the school year. From grade school to high school, the Discover Nature program brings young people to explore the conservation area’s ponds and fields and learn about the trees and dirt (kids can inspect a deep soil core sample).

Small children are given a net and sent to the pond with instructions to catch something alive. Anything. Most are disappointed when they can’t find a frog or scoop a fish because that’s the only thing they can imagine being there. They don’t see the predaceous diving beetles or water scorpions scurrying about near the pond’s surface.

Jones’ recent donation to endow youth conservation education research and the named faculty position — likely the Prairie Fork Youth Conservation Education Professor — will help further that discovery effort.

There are many programs that get kids out into nature. MU’s research will identify what is effective at developing an appreciation of nature in children. “[Americans] are spending a lot of money assuming we’re getting good outcomes,” says Mark Ryan, director of the School of Natural Resources in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. “As scientists, our question is: Are we making a difference?

“This funding allows us to do something that simply wasn’t going to happen any other way. That kind of impact, through time, is almost immeasurable.”

Which all goes to the heart of Jones’ mission. “[I want] to inspire kids, just get them interested,” Jones says.

Pat Jones

During the warm months of the school year, busloads of school children visit Pat Jones and the Prairie Fork Conservation Area through the Discover Nature program. Some of the children write her afterward to thank her.