After eight years as our Planned Giving Officer, Leslee Spraggins is retiring. It’s been an honor for our staff and board to work alongside her.
Leslee’s beginnings in the world of land conservation began when she and her husband John started volunteering for conservation groups after college, but her love of nature started much earlier.
Benton, Arkansas, is the small town where she grew up, and happily, for her, it was located between both grandparents’ homes in the country. “I got to spend a lot of time there with them. I love being outside, and they had animals, and they grew nearly everything. That was the case on both sides,” she says.
Horses, cows, goats, pigs, sheep, wide stretched fruit and vegetable gardens, and an honest, Southern-style chicken house were all facets of outdoor life that Leslee only grew to love more as she got older. She also spent a lot of her childhood camping with her family in woodlands on the state’s western side. “There’s the Ozark National Forest, and then there’s also the Ouachita National Forest. The Ouachita River has been dammed in several places, and there are lakes and camping spots, so we spent lots of time there camping in the summers. I’d get up early and go fishing with my dad, and the water and air were so clear and beautiful. I just grew up in a way that helped me understand and appreciate life outside.”
Halfway between where John Spraggins and Leslee grew up was where they met at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Her sophomore year, they kept bumping into one another. “He would be going out of the cafeteria as I was walking in and we’d always say hi to each other every day. Then I was in a social club that was being accused of breaking the spotlight. The next event I went to, John was working the spotlight, so I went over and asked him if it was broken. He told me it was working fine and then asked if we could get a coke afterward. It was wonderful. I had this brilliant, good-looking, sweet person that I got to know.”
They didn’t know it at the time but sharing that coke would turn into sharing their lives together. They married after John got a Fulbright scholarship to study economics and moved to Germany, where they spent time traveling Europe. Upon returning to the states, John enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Illinois, and Leslee enrolled in the Department of Communications. Though all of her electives had been in natural resources, she graduated with a Bachelor of Science in radio and television. Her first post-college job was with a planning organization in Houston, Texas. Then she worked in various jobs for some time before having their first daughter Lacy, and then three and a half years later, Blythe. For Leslee, being a stay-at-home mom was a joy.
Her return to work after six years began with volunteering for various conservation groups. Eventually, she took a job at the Department of Pollution Control and Ecology as a recycling coordinator. Leslee helped communities start recycling programs in the central part of Arkansas. She worked for a few years here before getting a job at the Arkansas chapter’s Nature Conservancy. “It was probably the only position I could have ever been hired for. They were starting a new project – The Big Woods of Arkansas. It was a multi-state project with the Nature Conservancy and state and local government
s, Federal Fish and Wildlife, Ducks Unlimited, farmers, all kinds of groups.” Large portions of woodlands had been over-cleared, and farmers were losing crops to flooding. People were losing money and wildlife were losing habitat.
She talked to folks about conservation opportunities and the importance of saving these woods. She showed people the humbling beauty of a 1000-year-old Cypress tree, helped them learn about funding to restore bottomland hardwoods, and worked with partners on “Top Dollar for your Timber” workshops
. Working with farmers and duck hunters, state & federal officials, and nonprofit groups, she helped preserve 40,000 acres in a 500,000 acre target area.
Today, the Big Woods is part of a huge, connected wetland forest in the lower Mississippi River Alluvial Plain.
Another job at the Nature Conservancy came when she and her family moved to Iowa. John was a V.P. at the University of Dubuque, and Leslee became the state director for the Nature Conservancy in Iowa. The state director job was based in Des Moines. She led the Nature Conservancy through a capital campaign that saved important wetlands and prairies and restored a bison herd. For seven years, she came home on 3-day weekends and lived where she worked for the rest of the week. After Iowa, she spent six years as state director in Illinois, helping protect prairies and wetlands in Illinois as well.
Leslee and John found their way to Leelanau when Blythe was graduating from Carleton College in Minnesota. When they picked her up, they decided that they’d make a little vacation of it and traveled east through Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. As avid bikers, John was curious to see what biking the Lake Michigan coastline would look like. So on their way back to their home in Illinois, they hugged the east coast of Lake Michigan and became enchanted by the views. One place, in particular, stood out. “We got to Northport, and it was the cutest place I’d ever been.”
Leslee retired from working at the Nature Conservancy, and she and John moved to a home surrounded by woodland and overlooking Grand Traverse Bay and Gull Island. A board member from the Nature Conservancy encouraged her to look up a local named Brian Price. “My friend had told me to look him up because I needed to get involved with this organization. And so I called him up, and he said, ‘Where do you want to meet?'” They agreed on Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern, and when Brian said he was bringing along his fund development director, Leslee countered by bringing John. “I thought, ‘They’re going to ask me for money right now,'” she laughed.
She hadn’t expected the meeting to lead to a job offer. There was a position open, and Brian thought Leslee reaching out meant that she wanted to apply. “That’s why he brought his fundraiser with him!”
When Leslee started in January of 2013, she helped work on the Leelanau Conservancy’s capital campaign. “It was a bunch of really cool projects. Clay Cliffs was one of them.” She also was on the team that designed the iconic blue foldout map that’s found its way into so many local homes and cottages. “I said we have to use that turquoise blue color. That is what Leelanau looks like to me, that beautiful blue water.” She has managed our planned giving program, the Heritage Society, incomparably with grace and care.
She and John are looking forward to plenty of projects, family time, and relaxing time in retirement. One of their first plans is to take a tandem bike trip around the county when the weather permits. She and John have four beautiful grandchildren in addition to their daughters and two sons-in-law that they’re excited to spend more time with. A bulk of their property is old, beautiful forest with trails winding through and fruit they grow themselves and that grow wild. They hike or snowshoe Conservancy properties, Leelanau State Park, Sleeping Bear, and their property. In retirement, she looks forward to spending time with the love of her life, learning new things, and of course, being outside.
She has dedicated her career to her love of nature, and precious land has been protected with her help.
To Leslee Spraggins – We, and all of Leelanau, are so grateful that you’ve shared your passion for nature and talent for conservation with us. Thank you.