Ralph W. Abele
by Cheryl K. Riley
Two Giants of Conservation: Maurice Goddard and Ralph W. Abele
Throughout his life, Ralph W. Abele led, inspired, encouraged, motivated, supported and commanded the fight to save our natural environment. He believed strongly in the right of everyone to "clean air, pure water and the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment." As an uncommon leader of the Commonwealth and a champion for the living creatures who could not protect themselves, his motto was "Do your duty and fear no one!"
The Early Years
Born on a farm near Pittsburgh on Friday, the 13thof August, 1921, Ralph Warren Abele was the youngest of three children. Scouting was an avid interest from an early age, and his scouting participation whetted his appetite for conservation activities in the outdoors. He was also inspired by Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac and Ernest Thompson Seton's books. "I though these were the great leaders in the movement and I always tried to emulate them," he once said. Attending the National Boy Scout Jamboree in 1937, a young Ralph realized the importance of protecting and conserving the natural world. He pledged to do his part in scouting and wherever else he could make a contribution. As a 15-year old Boy Scout in 1937, Ralph participated in the Last Reunion of the Blue and the Gray at Gettysburg when Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the Eternal Light Peace Memorial.
Following graduation from high school, he received a partial scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh where he studied geology to become a petroleum engineer. His career was interrupted by World War II. As a company commander in the Army's Third Armored Division, he served in five campaigns in the European theatre, including the Normandy invasion. He left active service as a major and remained active in the Army Reserve with a tank battalion and a helicopter unit.
In 1945, he married Marguerite (Peggy) Dietz. He settled down in Pittsburgh to raise a son and daughter. He worked as a food broker, but the job didn't satisfy Ralph's desire to make a contribution to the conservation field, so he turned to scouting and also volunteered his services to other organizations bent on protecting western Pennsylvania's natural resources.
As a scout leader of Troop 230 in Mt. Lebanon, Ralph Abele taught impressionable young men about the wonders of nature. In the late 1950's and early '60's, before the first Earth Day, Ralph instilled a conservation ethic in young minds with his message that the land is ours only to nurture and pass on to future generations. Many of the students he taught later pursued careers in conservation. And those who didn't still had his positive philosophy in their minds and hearts.
Recognition of Ralph's service in scouting came in 1962 when he and his troop were awarded the coveted William F. Hornaday Award for distinguished service to conservation. It was the first time in the 50-year history of the Allegheny Council, BSA, that the famous medal had been presented.
A Conservation Leader
In 1969, Ralph's dream of working full time to protect the environment came true when he moved to Harrisburg to become the executive secretary of the Joint Legislative Air and Water Pollution Control and Conservation Committee of the House and Senate. Finally, he could really make a difference and effect some changes. And that he did! During his tenure, he helped write many important environmental laws including the 1970 Clean Water Amendments, the Clean Air Act, the Sewage Facilities Act and the Conservation Amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution.
In 1972, he was appointed executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish Commission and set out to protect Commonwealth waters. He was quoted as proclaiming "If the fish can't survive in the water, there are serious problems for man."
Ralph, who believed that public service was a noble career, took his job seriously and believed he an obligation to protect Pennsylvania's lakes, streams and aquatic life from the damaging effects of acid rain, pollution and habitat destruction. He took on the strip mining industry, didn't give up and ultimately won some important victories.
His Fish Commission "family" rallied behind his "Resource First" philosophy. They were given important missions - go after polluters, rewrite the Fish and Boat Code, develop and implement Operation FUTURE, restore shad to the Susquehanna River and the teach the younger generation what's important.
His Fish Commission years were among his busiest because he quickly become involved in matters both within and beyond Pennsylvania's boundaries. He was a member of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, the Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board, a director of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association and a life member of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs. He received numerous awards including the American Motors Award, the Pennsylvania Wildlife Federation's "Conservationist of the Year" award, Trout Unlimited's "Professional Conservationist of the Year" and the Meritorious Service Award from the Great Lake Fishery Commission."
Ralph was perhaps best know for the "Straight Talk" columns he wrote for Pennsylvania Angler. His power of the pen was both a delight and a consternation to many people. For those who agreed with his attacks against the abusers and his admonitions that "It's later than it's ever been," his was a refreshing voice of conviction. For those who disagreed or who were called to task, he was a nemesis. One subscriber to the Angler canceled his subscription when Ralph wrote on population control and declared that the population of the world must be stabilized.
Upon his retirement from the Fish Commission in 1987, Ralph reflected on his years with the agency. He considered his greatest achievement to he in helping the agency "establish credibility as a real conservation agency. He believed the future was in educating the public so they would want to protect the environment. He set the stage for the Commission's future role by establishing a Bureau of Education and Information.
When Ralph retired, his retirement banquet attracted conservationists from across Pennsylvania and across America. Among those who joined Ralph on the dais was Senator John Heinz with whom Ralph shared a passion for conservation and a love of the outdoors. Among the many tributes given Ralph at his retirement was award of the Pennsylvania Meritorious Service Medal, the highest award a grateful Commonwealth can bestow on an individual for civilian service in a position of great responsibility.
Retirement and Family Time
Retirement gave Ralph more time for his family, who had sometimes been left alone during his busy career. He and Peggy enjoyed travel, especially to Scotland and the braes of Balquihidder that he loved so dearly. He also cherished time with his four grandsons and taught them the lessons he had been teaching youth for decades.
Ralph had no intention, however, of retiring from the conservation field and remained active on many boards and in an advisory capacity to several organizations. During retirement, he was a regional director for the National Wildlife Federation; served on the Board of Trustees of the Pennsylvania Nature Conservancy, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, the Citizens Advisory Committee for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and as a member of the external committee for the Goddard Chair at Penn State University. Ralph was also elected to the Greenwood School District Board of Education.
One thing is certain - Ralph Abele will NOT be forgotten. How he lived and what he believed in made an indelible mark on the lives of almost everyone he met.
In his final "Straight Talk" for Pennsylvania Angler, he wrote:
The trail will be long and full
Life is a whole, and good and ill must be accepted together.
We have to reconcile ourselves to the mysterious rhythm of our destinies.
Ralph W. Abele Archival Materials at the Pennsylvania State Archives
Ralph W. Abele Conservation Heritage Award -- Executive Director -- PFBC Home
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