Gail Johnson speaks fondly of her husband, Lyle's, passion for Ducks Unlimited: "It was all about restoring a marsh. Lyle's church was the great outdoors, and as far as he was concerned, the best part of God's creation was the marshland. He looked forward to the season every year." Lyle passed away in spring 2012, but his enthusiasm remains the basis for the couple's lifelong commitment to the ducks.
In the 1970s, Lyle published a newsletter for the local chapter of the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association. He expanded his meeting dates and added dog training tips and conservation articles. By 1974, Lyle started writing about the various conservation organizations doing habitat work across the continent. While reading a book by Zach Taylor, Lyle discovered Ducks Unlimited. He was impressed with DU's conservation efforts and accomplishments, so he sent his first membership dues off to Chicago.
It took several years for Lyle to become affiliated with a Ducks Unlimited chapter, but in 1977, he was out hunting and ran into a fellow sportsman who told him a DU chapter was being developed in the Tri-County area. The gentleman offered to get Lyle a ticket to the chapter's upcoming dinner in Alexander, and Lyle enthusiastically accepted.
Lyle began working as a Batavia DU committee member the very next year. He was approached with the idea of starting another chapter in Orleans County, where he successfully hosted the first couples' dinner event in the area in March 1979. Gail remembers stopping by the venue early in the day. "I looked at Lyle before that dinner and he was by himself, trying to get this thing together; that's when I got involved," she said.
Lyle continued to embody that Ducks Unlimited "can do" spirit that has carried the organization through the last 75 years. Under his chairmanship (1998-2001), the net dollars raised for the ducks in Orleans County increased every year but one, averaging $34,000.
Lyle engaged many talented people to help raise such significant funds in this rural area of New York State. He also fought to introduce event underwriting to net even more. The Orleans County Chapter became one of the top fundraisers west of Route 81, and like many of the best DU events, became the county's premier social event. But Lyle didn't stop there. Under his leadership, the robust chapter spawned both the Greece and Brockport-Spencerport Ducks Unlimited committees.
Motivated by his boundless energy and vision, Lyle quickly worked his way up the Ducks Unlimited ranks, from zone chair to district chair, then New York state chair in May 1983. After moving to his position as New York state council chair, Gail fondly remembers how Lyle took great pleasure in cleaning up the colorful language at the all-male meetings by appointing her as secretary.
Lyle also chaired a Greenwing event held each summer at the Oakfield Rod and Gun Club, mentoring youth hunters and ensuring a bright future for the sport and for Ducks Unlimited.
The Johnsons continued to be engaged with DU at the state and national levels, and Lyle became the New York state editor of NYDU. He truly enjoyed holding this position, Gail says, and wrote columns on creating DU satellites, running the organization as a business, and that very "can do" attitude he himself lived by.
Even after his health began to decline in 2002, Lyle continued to volunteer, first on the John O'Brien tribute dinner and later on the Hazard Campbell tribute event. With Gail at his side, Lyle was deservedly honored as the 2010 New York State Conservationist of the Year.
The Johnsons solidified their financial commitment to DU as founding members of the Feather Society in 1994, wanting to continue their support in perpetuity. "We really didn't even have to think about it," Gail says. "We had always known that was where our money was going to go, so when we heard about it we signed right up."
Like many Ducks Unlimited supporters, the Johnsons approached their gift as a team. Lyle selected the charity and Gail helped him make it possible. Lyle started on the line at Kodak and worked his way up to being a supervisor while Gail worked as a junior high school teacher for 32 years. Gail's careful management of their gifts will leave a meaningful legacy for the ducks for generations.
Gail and Lyle Johnson appeared as featured donors in the 2012 Ducks Unlimited Annual Report, available online at ducks.org/annualreport.
For more information on becoming a DU Major Donor, please visit our Leadership Giving homepage or contact Anita Tyler at (901) 758-3871.