She moved through the final years of her life with little apparent interaction with others. Few people could recall the tall, thin woman with salt-and-pepper hair and brown eyes. She died at age 66 in her home – a 27-foot travel trailer parked in the shadows of the Olympic Mountains – of colon cancer on Nov. 16, 2015.
Though Rita’s life came to a close, her legacy will live on for generations thanks to her final act of astonishing generosity.
With no known friends or heirs in her final years, Rita’s closest connection was Nancy Zingheim, the manager for SKP RV Park in Chimacum, Washington, where Rita had parked her Airstream during the summer of 2015. Their only encounters were when Rita would come in to pay her lot rent or an occasional wave on the street when she walked her dog, an Italian greyhound/basenji mix named I.G.
Then in September, Rita showed up with a question for Nancy: “Will you be the executor of my will?” Nancy agreed.
Rita died a few weeks later, and Nancy got her first look at the will. It was as generous as it was surprising: give almost everything — nearly $800,000 – to eight National Wildlife Refuges and four parks across the West.
On the list were three U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuges from her home state of California, with one refuge in each of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Texas. The four others recipients were state and national parks from Texas and Wyoming.
Rita’s legacy started Nancy on a path that culminated with a 4,000-mile “trip of a lifetime” during which she learned about wild spaces and public lands, and what made them meaningful to Rita.
A USFWS MAP HIGHLIGHTS THE TOUR OF NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGES THAT ZINGHEIM TOOK TO BETTER UNDERSTAND POE’S INTEREST IN THEM AND WHY SHE WOULD LEAVE MONEY TO EACH. (USFWS)
Between December 2015 and April 2017, Nancy researched each refuge and park online. She called them with questions, intent on making sure that each refuge and park would live up to Rita’s expectations.
The biggest obstacle for Nancy was fighting to collect $374,000 owed to Rita from a long-ago inheritance. Once Nancy won that battle and the money came in, she could have considered her work nearly done. Someone else might have simply written the checks.
But not Nancy.
Over the months of searching through Rita’s paperwork and photos, Nancy started to know Rita on a deeper level. The last photo Nancy found of Rita was from a 1981 Texas driver’s license. Nancy discovered that Rita was born on October 20, 1949 in California and that she once held a nursing license, but couldn’t determine where or when Rita worked. Nursing may have been what Rita did at some point, but it was clear that it wasn’t what fulfilled her. There was an empty spot in Rita’s soul that could only be filled on public lands.
Rita’s devotion to the places that left a mark on her was infectious, and Nancy was determined to see firsthand where Rita’s final act of generosity was going. “I had never heard of a (National Wildlife) Refuge,” Nancy said. “I wanted the money to go to what Rita would have wanted.”
So in April 2017, Nancy took two weeks of vacation and headed south in Rita’s truck to visit six of the National Wildlife Refuges. It was a final trip that Rita would have loved, Nancy said.
First stop was Merced and San Luis refuges in central California. Next up was Tule Lake Refuge in northern California, then Malheur Refuge in Oregon, followed by Camas Refuge in eastern Idaho. Nancy’s final stop was northeast Washington at Little Pend Oreille Refuge, her personal favorite.
At each stop Nancy asked what the refuge needed and how they could best use the money. Most refuge managers suggested giving it to their respective Friends of the Refuge group, which would enable the money to be used on specific local projects per Rita’s intent. Malheur requested it go to the High Desert Partnership, a grassroots organization that brings together disparate groups to work collaboratively in the best interest of the refuge and the local community.
The possible projects are numerous. At Camas, for example, they need to replace dying trees around the visitor center for nesting and roosting birds, as well as finishing a pollinator garden. At San Luis and Merced, they need more family picnic areas.
At Little Pend Oreille Refuge, they could leverage the money as matching funds for a bigger grant. “Maybe an overlook/observation point with an accessible trail,” refuge manager Jerry Cline said. “We want it to be something a visitor like Rita would benefit from.”
WHERE RITA POE’S MONEY WAS DISBURSED.
Camas NWR (Idaho) – $96,551.48
Little Pend Oreille NWR (Washington) – $48,275.74
Malheur NWR (Oregon) – $48,275.74
San Luis NWR (Calif) – $48,275.74
Merced NWR (Calif) – $96,551.48
Tulelake NWR (Calif) – $72,413.6
Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge (Utah) – $48,275.74
Laguna Atascosta NWR (Texas) – $48,275.74
Hueco Tanks State Park (Texas) – $72,413.61
Choke Canyon State Park (Texas) – $48,275.74
Mammoth Hot Springs Campground, Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming) – $120,689.35
Wild Birding Center (Texas) – $48,275.74
Nine days and thousands of miles later, Nancy arrived back home from her solo trip. She was exhausted, but happy to see her husband and new dog – I.G., which she took at Rita’s request in her final days.
Nancy finally had a true understanding of National Wildlife Refuges, public lands and, perhaps most importantly, Rita. On the open roads of the West, Nancy discovered how the enigmatic Rita could find her peace on public lands.
“Only one person at any of the refuges remembered Rita, and it was because of her Airstream” Nancy said. “She’d go to the refuges and spend all day taking hundreds of pictures. There weren’t any (photos) of Rita; just the birds and animals she loved.”
And Rita passed that love for wildlife and wild lands on to Nancy. The nondescript stranger in lot #412 at the SKP RV Park changed her life for the better.
“She made me realize that we live in nature and there are animals all around us,” Nancy said. “How often do we take time to sit and watch them? I never stopped to realize the little things like when the birds arrive. I do stop and watch the animals now. … Your refuges are quiet and peaceful. If you’ve never been, you should go to a refuge and spend some time there for Rita.”
Tracy Casselman, the project leader for the Southeast Idaho Refuge Complex that includes Camas, didn’t know Rita. But he knows a lot of people like Rita who visit the refuges.
“Rita’s relationship wasn’t with people,” Tracy said. “Her relationship was to the refuges and public lands. She found her peace out there. Her generous gift will ensure that more people will enjoy our refuges in her memory.”
Nancy keeps her memory of Rita and her love of nature close. Rita asked that she be cremated and that her ashes spread in nature away from people. Nancy held on to her ashes for months before finding the right spot near her home.
“A friend found the spot on a hike, and the next day we hiked a mile into the woods and scattered her ashes and some flowers on a hillside overlooking a lake, the mountains and trees. She can hear the birds she loved. I say hello to her every time I drive past.”
No obituary. No tombstone. Only a marvelous, shining legacy.
Please, carry on the spirit of Rita with a visit to your public lands.
Editor’s note: Brent Lawrence is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service public affairs officer in Portla