R. Roger Pryor cared about Missouri and its people. With his death on March 23, the state lost one of its greatest champions.
As the senior environmental-policy director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, Pryor never failed to speak out against those special interests that value financial profit over the protection of air, land and water. For more than three decades, he worked to defend these natural resources from public and private plunder, always placing conservation above exploitation and reason over folly.
About 80 members of the Coalition gathered last Saturday at the Old Playground Pavilion in Tower Grove Park to remember him -- his greatest achievements, his love of nature, his smallest failings. They remembered him as a man of principle, compassion and knowledge.
"He was always so damned interesting, I couldn't get away from him," says Daniel Heim of the Coalition. "He always took the time to explain things so that you fully understood. He knew about everything. He was a great Missouri historian. He had been out there and felt and knew the wilderness. He had been all over Missouri. He had been over its trails. He had been in its caves. He had been up and down its rivers. It was really where his heart was. I loved that about Roger."
With his flowing beard, long hair and broad girth, Pryor was an imposing figure, and an exceptional raconteur who served up his strong opinions with a combination of patience, self-deprecation and wry humor. He was also a folksinger and guitarist. At times Pryor could be stubborn as a mule, particularly in defending what he considered to be a just cause. As Leo Drey, the driving force behind Missouri's environmental movement, put it: "He had a big foot, and when he set it down, you couldn't move it."
State Rep. Joan Bray (D-University City) commemorated Pryor last week in a resolution in the state House saying Pryor "dedicated himself to the preservation of this state's Irish Wilderness and opposition to nonsensical development in flood plains, clear-cutting of publicly-owned forests and drilling for lead in the Mark Twain National Forest system."
Ron Kucera, of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, told a story about Pryor that sounds as if it has already reached the status of Ozark folktale. As the story goes, a long time ago, Pryor attempted to remove a poisonous snake from a campground occupied by Sierra Club members and their families, but he failed in his only known act of snake charming. The snake bit him. Concerned that Pryor's life was in danger, his friends decided to rush him to the hospital and carried him to a nearby station wagon. As the vehicle drove away, Pryor rose up and said: "Make sure nobody hurts that snake!"
Pryor showed the same sensitivity to nature during his career. As a geologist, he understood the sensitivity of karst topography, the porous limestone terrain beneath much of Missouri. He understood how the creation of lead-tailing ponds or a nuclear-waste dump jeopardized the underlying aquifers and, ultimately, the entire watershed of the vast Mississippi Valley.
Pryor had a sense of place and an indefatigable will to preserve it. As a biologist, he knew the myriad flora and fauna of Missouri from walking the state's hills and hollows. He also knew the diversity of the people who live here. Be they farmers, lawyers, journalists or businessmen, he could debate, cajole or flat-out talk them into at least considering his position.
He was a Missourian in the best sense of the word: pragmatic, humble and, when need be, uncompromising and stubborn as a mule.