By STEVEN NALLEY
After a speech thanking everyone who worked to rename the Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge after her late husband, Becky Hamilton had a surprise.
“There’s one other person who would like to say a few important words to you,” Hamilton said.
At that moment, Davis Hamilton, Becky’s young grandson, made his way onto the stage. Peering over the podium, leaning toward the microphone, Davis addressed the audience.
“Thank you for naming this refuge after my grandpa Sam D. Hamilton. The ‘D.’ stands for Davis, which is my name,” Davis said, drawing applause.
“If my grandpa was alive right now, he would say, ‘Go Dawgs,’” he added, drawing more applause.
The Hamilton family, several officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and representatives from many other organizations gathered Friday at the renamed Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge, honoring his legacy and unveiling new signage bearing the park’s new name.
Sam Hamilton became director of the USFWS in September 2009, but his 30-year career with USFWS ended with his sudden death in February 2010. U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and U.S. Representative Gregg Harper, R-Miss., introduced legislation to rename the Noxubee NWR in Hamilton’s honor in early 2011, and it passed in February 2012.
Becky Hamilton said the one thing that rivaled Sam’s pride in the USFWS was his pride in MSU, because Starkville was where he grew up, and MSU was where he met her. She said he would often talk to her about getting his start with the USFWS.
“You could not have picked a better way to remember him and his dedication to the FWS and his love for all of you,” Becky said. “As I stand here before you, I can feel Sam smiling down on all of us, and I think if he could speak to you right now, he would say how very humbled he is by this honor and also very proud to have the Hamilton name associated with this magnificent national wildlife refuge. I think he would tell you to keep fighting the good fight to conserve our country’s irreplaceable natural resources ... because that is well worth the struggle. Finally, he would say ‘Thank you’ for the wonderful opportunities you gave him that started right here.”
Cindy Dohner, USFWS Southeast regional director, said Hamilton made a difference in the work, perspective and lives of all his USFWS associates and colleagues. She said she felt lucky to know him.
“He was passionate about many things: his family, his friends and fish and wildlife, or, as he called them, ‘the critters.’” Dohner said. “We’re here to celebrate his life and his passion for the critters.”
Dan Ash, the current USFWS director and Sam Hamilton immediate successor, said he was a great friend and a great colleague. As friends, he said, they shared many traits, including a spirit of competition.
“I’m proud to follow Sam as the 16th director of the USFWS,” Ash said, “but I’m sure if we could translate the sounds that are coming from the many critters that abound in this national wildlife refuge at this moment, we’d probably hear Sam’s voice saying, ‘Dan, you’ll always be one back of me.’”
Ash said it was the Noxubee NWR that inspired Sam Hamilton to pursue a life of service, nurturing in him a sense of responsibility to the natural world. He said he hopes putting Sam Hamilton’s name on the refuge will ignite the spirit of public service in others.
“In the years to come when people visit the Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge, I hope they’ll learn about the importance and the rewards of public service,” Ash said. “I hope they’ll be inspired to serve their fellow citizens, their communities and their nation as this great man did.”
Greg Knadle, director of congressional relations at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, said he was grateful to Cochran and Harper for their leadership in the legislative effort to rename the refuge. He said his organization would also pay tribute to Sam’s legacy in multiple ways.
“First, we were proud to help preserve Sam’s legacy by receiving and matching private donations made in his name to establish a scholarship fund for future conservation leaders,” Knadle said. “The foundation granted a total of $25,000 to the Friends of Noxubee Refuge ... for the next generation of Sam Hamiltons.”
Second, Knadle said NFWF has provided the renamed refuge with a $125,000 grant to purchase a key tract of land within the refuge’s boundary in Sam’s honor. Finally, he said, the foundation will cover the full cost of changing the refuge’s entrance signs to the new name at no cost to federal taxpayers or the refuge’s conservation budget.
Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman was present at the ceremony, and he said the renaming was not only an honor for the Hamilton family but also the Starkville community.
“Renaming of a federal wildlife refuge is a significant event that the U.S. government does not undertake lightly,” Wiseman said. “Their action recognizes the lifelong commitment to conservation ... of Sam Hamilton.”