By Carolyn Faught, who retired from our communications staff in April, 2021.
During the 41 years that Gretchen and Tom Dunfee owned their home on Little Traverse Lake, Gretchen had a morning ritual. Weather permitting, at dawn she would step into her kayak and paddle the shoreline. “I saw river otters and eagles, turtles basking in the sun, and blue herons,” says Gretchen. “Deer would come down to the shoreline to drink. It was so peaceful.” As the light grew brighter on her 1.5-hour paddle, she would pass people sipping coffee on their docks.
Tom, who died last fall, preferred to sleep in and got his exercise on a beloved bike, which he often rode in to Leland. During those years, Tom, a past Board Chair, often stopped by the Conservancy’s office to check in with staff, including me. Many a quick chat was had standing in the doorway to make sure he was on top of all that was happening, and to learn what he might do to help. The role of Chairman was just one of several that Tom held over nearly two decades.
In memory of Tom, Gretchen made a generous donation to fund additional boardwalk and other maintenance at the Swanson Preserve, a place they both loved and visited often. Tom, in fact, was a fundraiser for the project, securing key donations from friends and neighbors around the lake. At the 2013 dedication of the new preserve, Tom cut the ribbon and welcomed nearly 100 people to explore this lovely place.
Since then, untold numbers of hikers have enjoyed the 83-acre preserve which takes in 2,000 feet of shoreline. “We always thought that Little Traverse Lake was one of the best-kept secrets in Leelanau,” says Gretchen. “Tom really felt it was so important for the lake that Sonny’s (Swanson) farm be protected. We wanted to preserve what we had experienced.” That included their daughters picking strawberries and buying sweet corn and tomatoes from the iconic yellow farm stand. And, long conversations with Sonny whenever the legendary farmer happened to be working at the stand. (The farm has since been sold to a young farmer and is protected with a conservation easement.)
Like all of our natural areas, usage has skyrocketed during the pandemic. “Erosion has occurred as hikers step wider to pass others and to stay out of muddy sections,” says Chad Jordan, Property Maintenance Specialist. “A vernal pool near the kiosk has grown larger as water levels have risen.” Two new sections of boardwalk, a total of 60 feet, link up to older boardwalk and were built in our Stewardship barn. Chad spearheaded the work, with help from AmeriCorps members Grace Nagle and Veronica Bauer. The trio also spread new wood chips and added gravel to the parking area, all thanks to Gretchen’s donation.
I met Gretchen out at the preserve in April, shortly before I retired. We sat on a memorial bench in Tom’s honor located at the shore of Little Traverse Lake. From there, a serene view takes in the home where she and Tom spent so many years. Former Conservancy Board Chairs donated the bench naming rights.* The bench itself was built by Founding Executive Director Brian Price. “That meant a lot to me; Tom enjoyed a long friendship with Brian,” says Gretchen.
Gretchen recalled how Tom became involved with the Leelanau Conservancy. He had just turned 60, and had retired as the Director of Nephrology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. The couple moved north, but after a summer of golf and biking, Tom quickly became bored.
“One day he came into the laundry room and watched me iron and I thought, this guy needs something to do,” she says. Gretchen suggested he join a Leland men’s coffee group she had heard about. There he met then-Conservancy Board Chair Dick Ristine. “Tom revered Dick, and valued his friendship,” she adds. Tom quickly became involved and I met him a few years later.
At that time we had just one Stewardship staffer, Meg Woller. Under Meg’s and Brian Price’s direction, Tom and two retirees, Dr. John Bull and Jim Vachow, formed “The Volunteer Stewardship Network.” The trio became great friends, and spent hours building and maintaining many of the trails that exist today. Sadly, all three are now gone. But they set the stage for the large volunteer group we have come to depend on which lightens our load and saves the Conservancy thousands of dollars annually.
As time went on, Tom took on more jobs. He trained to become a docent, leading hikes for over a decade. “He loved to teach; it was a favorite part of his job at Henry Ford,” says Gretchen. She laughs recalling how he couldn’t stop talking about kettle holes, dune formations, or pointing out wildflowers on hikes when their three adult children came to visit.
To me, Tom was the embodiment of our entire organization. He did trail work. He led hikes. He helped to fundraise. He and Gretchen gave generously as longtime Sustainers, and joined our Heritage Society too. As a board member and Chair, Tom helped to set the direction for the organization. But most of all, Tom was a friend to so many.
When I was going through treatment for breast cancer 10 years ago, Tom would swing by my office at least once a week and pull me into the conference room to check-in. As a physician, he helped to ease some of my worries and answered my questions. As a melanoma survivor himself, we shared common fears and thoughts on our mortality.
I am not the only one he encouraged and cared for. “Tom was and still is such a beloved figure,” says Executive Director Tom Nelson. “He was always curious and keenly interested in our work and our lives, like a favorite uncle.” He encouraged Tom Nelson when he was a candidate to become our second Executive Director. “Tom believed in me—a gift I’ve never forgotten,” adds Tom Nelson.
Tom died last fall at 80. In his last few years he suffered from dementia and an autoimmune disease. To simplify their life and be close to medical care, the Dunfees sold their home on Little Traverse Lake and moved to Traverse City.
Gretchen feels so fortunate to have been married to such a fine man for 57 years. Almost the entire time we sat on Tom’s bench, a male and female merganser swam in front of us along the shore. Gretchen commented that the mergansers seemed symbolic of her and Tom who, too, had “nested” on the lake. “I guess I am always aware of Tom’s presence with me and my memories of our life together,” she says.
Gretchen recalls a day early on in retirement when they hiked the Cottonwood Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. “We got to the top and Tom encircled me in his arms and said, ‘We made it!’” she says. “But he wasn’t really talking about the trail, rather the fact that we had retired to a place that we both loved so much.”
“As we stood there taking in the view, I remember saying that I hoped we would have at least 15 good years,” says Gretchen, tearing up. “Now I wish I had said 20 or 25.”
Those of us who worked or volunteered with Tom were all so lucky to know him. Thank you, Gretchen, for your gift that will remind us of him every time we visit the ecological gem that he helped to save.
Learn more about Swanson Preserve on our website.
*For more information about named gift opportunities, contact Meg Delor, Development Director: [email protected]