Purdy ’38 awarded degree for environmental conservation efforts

Caitie Williamson

Lawrence University honored Virginia Purdy, class of 1938, Monday, April 20 by awarding her an honorary doctorate of humane letters for her efforts in environmental conservation. The degree is awarded annually to alums that have a particularly distinguished career and have been large supporters of Lawrence.
Provost and Dean of the Faculty David Burrows presented the award. As Purdy lives in Buffalo, Wyo., the degree was accepted in absentia by senior Megan Bjella who, as director of Lawrence’s sustainable garden, embodies Purdy’s ideals of environmental conservation.
“A lot of the work Purdy’s done in terms of thinking about the environment in an integrated way and being aware of all of the complexities of the environment is something I strive to emulate,” Bjella said.
According to Burrows, Purdy’s award is particularly fitting because of her ties with the environment and Lawrence’s current Green Roots initiative – Purdy’s recognition was even the kick-off of Lawrence’s Earth Day events.
“[Degrees] are a way for an institution of higher learning to recognize people who have been important for education,” Burrows said. “Purdy has been both an alumna and very involved in the environmental movement.”
Purdy’s ties with Lawrence did not end with her graduation. She served on the board of trustees for 17 years, from 1985 to 2002, when she was named trustee emerita.
Purdy’s experience at Lawrence was one that left her a knowledgeable person in many ways, which is one reason she continues to support Lawrence.
“Students leave [Lawrence] with a feeling of a great spread of knowledge in their education – not only literary, but artistic, and a kind of education that makes a well-rounded individual,” Purdy said.
Purdy, the only child of Danish immigrants, grew up on a farm on the outskirts of Appleton, where the Copps grocery store on Calumet Street is currently located. After graduating, she moved to Buffalo, Wyo., where her uncle had homesteaded.
Purdy ended up staying in Wyoming the rest of her life and developing the Purdy Ranch, a 23,000-acre working cattle ranch. At 92, she had a successful career as an entrepreneur and cattle rancher, she served as the only woman mayor of Buffalo, and she performed in several symphonies.
In the past, Purdy has welcomed students of the geology department in to visit Purdy Ranch to examine its geological features, which encompass canyons and springs of the Bighorn Mountains. She has also been a large supporter of Bj”rklunden.
Purdy has been a voice for the environment in a place where environmentalism is not popular. She was involved in the water conservation movement in the 1940s, and she is an advocate for protection of predators.
Purdy does not allow any hunting of natural predators, such as wolves and mountain lions, on her land. In the ’40s, she built two reservoirs and an irrigation system on the ranch in order to conserve water for the ranch and its animals.
“She did it because she believed it was the right thing to do – she fell in love with the earth – it might be as simple as that, and everything she did was guided by this love and admiration,” said Cal Husmann, vice president for development and alumni relations, who has visited Purdy several times.
Purdy has also served on several state commissions on water conservation and has been a spokesperson for safer coal mining practices.
Additionally, Purdy assisted in efforts to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone National Park. She is a member of multiple wildlife and environmental conservation groups, including Alaskans for Wildlife, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
“I just believe it’s the duty of anyone who loves the land to preserve it the way nature has given it to us,” Purdy said in an interview with the Buffalo Bulletin. “I never expected anyone to acknowledge me as a great benefactor. I like to do things quietly and humbly because I like saving and preserving the natural environment and the wildlife in it. It is important to me to live in an environment that feeds the soul and takes care of the body. If you take care of the land, it will take care of you.