Each morning and afternoon and the times in between I walk down the Refuge’s Atkeson Trail to a vantage point where I can usually see the chicks and begin my all too familiar count to nine.
It is a wonderful way to start the day because the trail begins with a boardwalk that weaves through a bald cypress swamp constructed in 1938 by young men of the Civilian Conservation Corp under the direction of then assistance Refuge biologist Tom Atkeson.
Entering the trail is like walking into a cathedral; the trees standing like benevolent sentinels, dark and shadowy against the soft light, diffused as if through stained glass, reaching for heaven above and through liquid refection into infinity below while gently converting the visitor into parishioner while stilling the mind with a whisper of peaceful harmony and reverence. The traveler is instantly blessed with the gift of place.
But who is this man who created such a place? The answer, I was to learn, is the stuff of legend. “Ask Teresa” Bill, the Refuge biologist, told me referring to Teresa Adams, Head Ranger here at Wheeler. “She used to work for Tom back in the 80’s”. Next morning, Teresa kindly took the time to relate some of her “Tom Stories”, having worked for Tom on the Refuge right out of college. She also gave me an Audubon Magazine article about Tom dated September, 1987 from which the following information is derived.
Tom Atkeson came to the newly created Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge as a young junior biologist in l938. The Roosevelt Administration had just designated the middle third of the Wheeler Reservoir as a waterfowl refuge to compensate for the extraordinary loss of waterfowl nationwide at the time. It was the first refuge to be overlaid on a hydroelectric project and as such was an experiment in compatibility.
Tom’s first job was to walk every foot of the new refuge and map all 158 miles of it on both sides of the Tennessee River. He was also tasked with developing a plan for the restoration of this badly degraded land and develop it into good habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. With the help of the CCC’s, Tom began the restoration.
Then World War II broke out and into the Army Tom went. One day, while on a training exercise, the anti tank mine he was burying exploded, tearing away his hands, the lower half of his face, shattering his leg and blinding him. Two years in an Army hospital followed; years of terrible pain and ever deepening despair.
Tom recounted this terrible time and the event that changed his life in a 1987 interview for Audubon Magazine. “My father was visiting me one day in the hospital and he prefaced everything he said to me by calling me “Captian”. Finally I said, Hell’s bells! You never referred to me by my rank before! Why start now? To which his father answered, “I didn’t mean your rank, son. I was thinking of that poem we used to say: “Invictus.” You remember it.” Then they both began to cry as they recited it together as they had so many times before:
“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods there be
For my unconquerable soul
It matters not how strait the gate
How charged with punishment the scroll:
I am the master of my fate,
I am the Captain of my soul.”
“Those eloquent lines of William Ernest Henley’s transformed me.” Tom said. “ It pulled me back from falling into a dark hole. From that moment I had my perspective back. I knew with complete conviction that if I tried my utmost and did not let any temporary failure dishearten or stop me, I could go on and do something. It might not be exactly what I had planned, but something.”
With the help of Ira N. Gabrielson, then director of the National Wildlife Refuge System for the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service who had met and remembered Tom from years before, Tom convinced the powers that be that he knew every inch of the Wheeler Refuge and that he could make a significant contribution to its development if given the opportunity.
He was hired with the condition that he employ a sighted person as his assistant at his own expense. And so the legend began. He went on to become Refuge Manager in 1962 and remained so until his retirement in the late 1980’s when he was in his mid seventies.
Under his direction the Refuge brought back the otter, the turkey, the white tail deer as well as creating habitat that became the wintering ground for tens of thousands of waterfowl. Today, over 300 species of birds may be seen on the Refuge; easily over 100 in a single day, and there is now an abundance of small mammal species as well as recreational and educational opportunities for the general public.
Tom received many commendations, awards and citations over the years but the one he liked the least was being named federal handicapped worker of the year despite going to the White House and meeting President Reagan. “I despise that word “handicapped” Tom said. “If I do a good job I don’t mind getting credit for it, but I don’t want to be a successful cripple!”
The Audubon article about Tom ended beautifully with the following -“Kipling said it to Atkeson’s satisfaction in his Barrack-Room Ballad about Tommy Atkins:
“I ain’t no thin red hero,
I ain’t no blackguard too,
But an ordinary human
Most remarkably like you.”