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Many of us work diligently to conserve wildlife and fish, and the wild places where they live. And, sometimes it seems as though we are in it alone. Or, that we are innovating and breaking ground never before considered.

However, we are not alone; rather, we stand on the shoulders of the giants of conservation who came before us. One of those giants, NC State alumnus and former professor Dr. Eugene (Gene) Hester, recently was inducted into the North Carolina Wildlife Federation Conservation Hall of Fame. Gene is the 28th person inducted into the Hall of Fame since Fred Barkalow was first inducted decades ago.

Dr. Eugene Hester.

Dr. Eugene Hester receiving his induction into the NCWF Conservation Hall of Fame.

Gene served at the highest levels of fish and wildlife policy for a quarter-century, during which the foundational elements of conservation policy were hammered into place. Endangered species, science-based management, the national wildlife refuge system—all of these bear the fingerprints of Gene Hester. Talk about a local boy done good…

A career unmatched: From academics to policy leadership

Gene grew up in Wendell, the 7th child of a 7th child, born on the 7th day of July in 1931. Gene earned his B.S. and M.S. degrees in Wildlife and Conservation Management at NC State and his doctorate from Auburn University. After graduate school, Gene came back to NC State as a Professor of Zoology, and he became the first leader of the Cooperative Fisheries Unit at NC State University in 1963. These were the first steps in a career that he could hardly have dreamed of, and that has never been duplicated.

Gene went to Washington, DC in 1971, to head up the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of Fishery Research, and ultimately, spent nearly a decade heading up the research division there. This was in the infant years of the Endangered Species Act, and Gene’s deft handling of the many controversies and details about the ESA no doubt strengthened that cornerstone of policy. Over the next 25 years, his career would be unmatched by any other USFWS employee in history. He held the highest non-appointed positions in three separate divisions of the Department of the Interior — the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the National Biological Service. He worked with Republicans and Democrats, serving under eight presidents. Upon his retirement, his position in the Senior Executive Services had a federal government civil service classification equivalent to an admiral in the Navy.

And through it all, Gene has been a dedicated educator. A renowned photographer, his images frequently grace the pages of Wildlife in North Carolina, where he’s had nearly 50 cover shots, plus wildlife calendars, and some 60 other magazines. His research and writing on wood ducks has informed and inspired countless young biologists. He’s recently published a book on Hootie, a barred owl he befriended five years ago.

Gene and his wife, Katherine, now split time between Wendell and his long-time adopted home of northern Virginia. Gene’s passion for conserving fish and wildlife by educating young people is as strong as ever. He currently mentors several Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology students at NCSU, including recent and current awardees of the Thomas Quay Experiential Learning Award.

Many a fisheries or wildlife biologist has been blessed by the teachings, writings, and artwork of Dr. Hester. But, he will be the first to tell you that he stood on the shoulders of giants as well, on the shoulders of the likes of Aldo Leopold, Fred Barkalow, and Tom Quay (modified from an original draft by T. Edward Nickens).