In Memoriam: Ray Zehler

Ray Zehler - In Memoriam

Ray Zehler (1932-2016)

Ray Zehler joined the Izaak Walton League in 1967. "A friend talked me into it," he said later. He became a life member of the organization and in 2010 was presented with the 54 Founders Award — the League’s highest honor.

Zehler was president of the League’s Anthony Wayne Chapter in Hamilton, Ohio, from 1983 to 1989 and sponsored all youth and student members of that chapter. He was president of the Ohio Division from 1988 until 1990 and served as the division’s executive director from 1988 until 2015. He served as a national director and on the IWLA Endowment Board for decades and was a member of the Hamilton Chapter (the multi-use building there is named in his honor) at the time of his passing.

Zehler’s list of accomplishments reads like a history of the conservation movement in Ohio. "I never learned to say no," he explained.

In 1997, he received a $15,000 grant from the Great Lakes Commission to get counties involved in stream monitoring. "They started in a county in Pennsylvania on Lake Erie and moved to Upper Sandusky," he said. "We got all the counties in between involved, teaching more than 150 people how to monitor streams and looking for a way to stop siltation in Lake Erie." League members also certified more than 60 stream monitors, whose findings would then be accepted by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Each certified monitor agreed to get ten more people involved.

He was on the committee that drew up a blueprint for the Clean Ohio Fund, passed in 2000, and a member of the committee that distributed $40 million in funds to three counties.

Zehler made sure IWLA was one of the first organizations to join EarthShare — a national nonprofit that connects people and workplaces with ways to support environmental causes — in Ohio. Zehler worked on IWLA committees that consulted with the Ohio Environmental Council to establish watershed plans and total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) for nutrients well before blue-green algae was the buzzword it is today.

He served on the first Butler County Litter Control and Recycle Committee and joined the Butler County Solid Waste District board in 1989.

"In 1978, the Hamilton Chapter of the IWLA began recycling as a way to raise money," he said. "We started recycling cans, newspaper, glass. Every month I’d take a full pickup load of newspapers to recycle and a half pickup truck load of whiskey bottles from bars. I put cattle racks on the pickup truck to put the cans on."

Zehler received the League of Ohio Sportsmen’s highest honor for 2014: the Conservationist of the Year award. "He was chosen for the award for all of the work he’s done over the years for conservation," said Larry Mitchell, Sr., president of the League of Ohio Sportsmen. "He has worked on so many projects over the years, for the Izaak Walton League of America and others. He put in his time, effort, and money. Any time you needed help, you could call him — for conservation, for hunting and fishing, he was always there to help."

Growing up on his family’s farm in Jacksonburg, Zehler noticed that his dad sodded the waterways and was selective in which trees he cut. However, Zehler didn’t appreciate the importance of conservation until he bought his own farm in 1965 and "had to do some things," he said. He admitted it was hard to stay ahead of the multiflora rose and honeysuckle.

Zehler was an avid hunter and fisherman. Besides hunting on his farm and throughout Ohio, he hunted deer in Colorado and pheasant in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

He remained optimistic about youth and conservation. Zehler supported IWLA programs to educate kids about conservation. "They will see, if their parents don’t see, that we have water shortages and polluted water," he said. "I think people will finally wake up to realize, if we don’t take care of it, it is gone. I think it will improve — if we’re not too late already."

Celeste Baumgartner