APPLETON, WIS. — Appleton native Virginia Purdy was an “environmentalist” decades before the term came into vogue.
In recognition of her commitment to preserving the environment and her contributions to conservation, Lawrence University is awarding Purdy an honorary doctor of humane letters degree Monday, April 20 to kick off a week-long celebration of Earth Day.
Purdy, 92, who lives in Buffalo, Wyo., will be presented the degree in absentia. Lawrence senior Megan Bjella of Appleton, who embodied Purdy’s spirit of land stewardship during an 18-month-long tenure as director of the Sustainable Lawrence University Garden, will accept the degree on Purdy’s behalf. Provost David Burrows will confer the honorary degree during ceremonies beginning at 6:30 p.m. in Science Hall 102.
“As the country prepares to commemorate another Earth Day, it’s most appropriate that Lawrence recognize Virginia Purdy, whose life has been a reflection of her deep love of nature and concern for the environment,” said Lawrence President Jill Beck. “We are proud to celebrate her leadership and honored to count her among our alumni.”
The only child of Danish immigrants who settled on a farm in south Appleton in the 1920s — the current site of the Copps grocery store on Calumet St. — Purdy graduated from Appleton High School and attended Lawrence as a conservatory of music student in the late 1930s.
After leaving Lawrence, Purdy moved west and began a successful career as a rancher. Today, the Purdy Ranch, a working cattle ranch outside Buffalo, totals more than 23,000 acres, with two indoor riding arenas as well as large herds of deer, elk, moose and antelope. In 2000, she put more than 5,000 acres into the Purdy Family Foundation for use as an outdoor ecological classroom by the University of Wyoming.
As early as the 1940s, Purdy became involved in water conservation issues. She established two reservoirs on the ranch, built an irrigation system that is still in use and served on several state commissions that dealt with water issues.
“I just believe it’s the duty of anyone who loves the land to preserve it the way nature has given it to us,” said Purdy. “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,” she added. “If you take care of the land, it will take care of you.”
She is an ardent supporter of numerous conservation and environmental organizations, among them Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, the Alaska Wildlife Alliance and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
In 1972, Purdy became the first woman elected to the Buffalo city council and was appointed mayor in May, 1974, serving until December of that year. She is the only woman in Buffalo history to hold the office. She also was a member of Lawrence’s Board of Trustees from 1985 until 2002, when she was named trustee emerita.
The Purdy family has a long history with Lawrence. Her late husband, R. Hampton Purdy, attended Lawrence in the 1930s, her mother-in-law, Annette Purdy, was a member of the class of 1910, her brother-in-law, Bruce Purdy, is associated with the class of 1939 and her nephew, Steve Purdy, graduated from Lawrence in 1967.