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Expo will feature life celebration for conservationist

Photo provided John Rife, center, helps carry a canoe down to the Crow Wing River. Rife's efforts helped establish the Crow Wing River Canoe Trail in 1964.

John Rife's life as a conservationist began when his wife, Helen, put him into the farming business during World War II by putting some money down on a small place in Wadena County's Meadow Township.

The restless man from Illinois, who lost his father when he was four, ran away from home to live with a cousin when he was 13, worked in Chicago, New York City and Minneapolis, served in the U.S Navy, raised two families and suffered a serious heart attack at the age of 33, will be honored for the Resource, Conservation and Development work he did at this year's Conservation and Wildlife Expo on the Wadena County Fairgrounds. Rife died in January at the age of 88. A life celebration for Rife will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Wadena County Fairgrounds grandstand. A Rife Dedication and Canoe Trip will be held Friday. Registration will be held from 9-9:30 a.m. at the Hunterville Outpost.

Rife had to take a good look at his lifestyle following his heart attack. He decided he was on the wrong track and struck out in a new direction, even though his doctor told him "you will never work another day in your life."

Rife proved the doctor wrong. Fifty-five years after his heart attack he was still not letting the grass grow under his feet, according to his daughter, Cherie Rife-Smylie, of Edgewood, N.M.

"I would say, at most, every 10 years he would be on a new mission," said Rife-Smylie. "He was multi-talented and he was an entrepreneur."

There was only one thing wrong with farming from Rife's point of view -- he did not know the first thing about it. Rife worked as a welder and a salesman and served as a photographer in the Navy.

Never afraid to try something new, Rife dived into farming with the help of some Veteran's Vocational Training. Along with a friend, Benny Walz, he started the Wadena Soil and Water Conservation District because he knew government extension services could help him become a better farmer.

Starting the district brought Rife into the world of politics. Rife was inspired by President John F. Kennedy's famous words "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" in 1963.

Rife was a founding father of the Resources Conservation and Development Council (RC&D) program which has accelerated the conservation, development and utilization of natural resources like the Crow Wing River Trail. By the time he was asked him to establish an RC&D project in Minnesota, Rife had already seen the wonderful future of the Crow Wing River Canoe Trail and in 1964 it became the first of 10 projects of its kind in the United States. The beautiful river, which runs all the way down the eastern side of Wadena County, is used by thousands of people each year.

Rife was a visionary and while his projects did not always work out, like a pulp and paper mill he wanted to see built in Sebeka, he was not so caught up in the idea of farming the land that he could not see other uses for it. He once told a neighbor "the time is going to come when our farms are not going to sustain us."

John's son, Jim, who runs Rife Chevrolet in Sebeka, believes his father's words have come true. The greatest value of the land has become recreational. Rife came to love the rural lifestyle and he greatly enjoyed watching the wild turkeys and deer that frequented his farm.

"What do you see happening?," Rife asked. "Two thousand an acre for land from people in the Cities who want that experience."

Rife was named Minnesota's outstanding conservationist in 1998 and in 2008 was inducted into the Resource Conservation and Development's Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C. where he quoted conservationist and writer Aldo Leopold.

"Recreational development is a job, not of building roads into lovely country," Leopold said, "but of building receptivity into the still, unlovely mind."