Milwaukee — Haskell Noyes of Milwaukee was a star American college basketball guard who left the offense for the defense of Wisconsin's natural resources - and that's how this story starts of why Milwaukee attorney Chris Noyes came to accept the first-ever statewide Green Tie Award for a family long-dedicated to everything outdoors thanks to a northern Wisconsin river and a passionate grandfather.
Chris Noyes won't brag about it because that's just not him. But, let the record show he has done plenty to keep conservation alive and strong in Wisconsin in his own right. This is why the Wisconsin League of Wisconsin Conservation Voters tapped the attorney with Godfrey & Kahn in Milwaukee to be the first to receive its Green Tie Award at its Green Tie Gala on September 15. The award recognizes a person who works to unite others around conservation principles.
"It means an awful lot," Noyes said in an interview when he readily named other Noyes family members on the conservation trail. "It is not the recognition that we were seeking. But, it is recognition of our involvement in various conservation issues around the state for multiple generations."
He's not exaggerating.
The Noyes team has been at this a long time. It's not only the resources they run the ball for - they honor those they see as the right players in the right place at the right time. That includes the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources conservation wardens who are brought into the Noyes family huddle once a year.
Ask any warden about Haskell Noyes and they'll tell you it's the name on The Watch. Make that the gold pocket watch presented annually to the top warden by the family. It's a very big deal. Officially, it's called the Haskell Noyes Efficiency Award. Haskell Noyes, who is Chris' late grandfather, started this award as a way to thank the wardens.
"It is good to be a part of something that I know the wardens really appreciate," Chris said. "We are so honored to be able to be part of that award. We are very proud of it. We have so much respect for what they (wardens) do."
After 86 years of presenting a warden with arguably the most treasured award an outdoor law enforcement officer can receive in a career, the Noyes family finally got one, too. But, let the record show again, this family wasn't asking for the kudos.
So, this begs the question, how did this conservation-minded family get so conservation-minded?
The answer rests in answering yet another question: Who was Haskell Noyes?
Brule River fuels Noyes' conservationism
Haskell was born July 22, 1886, into a Milwaukee family that could afford sending him to Yale University, where he played guard for the university's men's basketball team and ultimately was the captain during his 1904-1908 attendance. He also was picked as an All-American player by the Helms Athletic Foundation. He graduated and returned to Wisconsin, where he was the head coach of the University of Wisconsin-Madison men's basketball for 3 seasons before he returned to Yale to serve as their head coach for one year. Yes, Haskell had game.
He came back to his native Wisconsin, where he had earned his law degree, and also where he could continue his trips to the Brule River. The Noyes Family has had a summer place on the Brule dating back to the 1880s, about the time Haskell was born.
"Those first trips were likely done by train, and then horse and buggy for the final 35 or 40 miles from Ashland to the river. The property and lodge still are in the family," Chris said. "I'm fourth generation but there are members of the seventh generation using it now, too."
As Chris tells it, his late grandfather spent every chance he could enjoying the state's natural wonders. And a lot of that personal time was spent in rural Douglas County on the Brule in the northwest - about as far north as he could get from Milwaukee, the state's largest city in the southeast.
"His passion was the outdoors," he said of his grandfather, who died before Chris was born. "My grandfather developed his conservation passion from his summers on the Brule. That is true for me, my brothers, my father and my cousins," he said.
As Haskell grew as a successful and well-known Milwaukee businessman, he also acted on his passion for the outdoors and conserving the state's natural resources. In 1926, he developed a law proposal to centralize conservation efforts under a statewide group led by a director and six commissioners who received no salary, which was a precursor to the organization that ultimately became the DNR. He worked with groups, such as the Isaac Walton League and continued his trips and outdoor adventures until his death in December 1948. He was only 62 years old when he died, but his legacy and work lives on in Chris and all the members of the Noyes family. Haskell Noyes also was posthumously placed into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame.
Since grandfather Haskell died before Chris was born, he knows about his grandfather from good old-fashioned storytelling.
"There is the famous story of him (grandfather Haskell) buying uniforms for the wardens in the early 1920s, who didn't have uniforms at the time," Chris said, adding the current Warden Honor Guard wears the duplicate of the famed MacKenzie Uniforms originally purchased by grandfather Haskell.
But, wait. Chris also has a semi-load of his own experiences on the Brule - any of which will readily bring a smile and a momentary mind escape to the wilderness from his Milwaukee office. How about one?
It was a cold night, Chris starts, and he was about 11 or 12. His twin brother, their father and Chris - three substantial humans, you might say -- climbed into a single canoe to fish for brown trout. There also was a guide with the three guys in the same canoe on the Brule River.
"That poor guide was in a canoe with three big guys," he said and laughed at the memory. "My dad caught one big fish after midnight. I remember how excited I was that he caught it. I was so cold, but excited."
And that excitement as a kid developed into a lifestyle of conservation ethics. "It was passed on to us from our time on the Brule. And a lot was expected of us," Chris said.
Who are us? Start with Chris. He's served on boards or helped the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters and state chapter of The Nature Conservancy to name two. Daughter Elena works in the national office of the League of Conservation Voters in Ohio, working in a place that fits her environmental passions.
Consider two of Chris' many relatives, who live in Wisconsin. Cousin Bob Banks of Brule helps lead a Brule River organization and his uncle Haskell Noyes III of Mequon has worked tirelessly for four decades working to improve habitat for grouse, geese and more waterfowl.
Tradition to honor job carries on
He also has a twin brother, Blake Noyes of Missouri, who joins Chris, cousins Bob Banks and Hack Noyes of Mequon in continuing the annual tradition of honoring a DNR warden with "The Watch."
The award started in 1930. Grandfather Haskell awarded the gold pocket watch annually until his death in 1948. That's when Chris' uncle Hack Noyes awarded it until he died in 1968. At that point, Chris' father took over and did it until 1975. That's when Chris, joined by his cousins and twin brother, took on the duties.
Known as the highest honor possible for a state conservation warden, the Haskell Noyes award criteria states the warden must lead a quality law enforcement conservation program which excels in a balance of enforcement, education and community involvement.
The honor also is known as the Watch because the actual award is a gold pocket watch inscribed: "Thank You For Able and Faithful Service." It also is known as the Warden of the Year Award.
To a DNR conservation warden, winning the Watch represents the pinnacle of his or her career - it is the warden's Super Bowl or the World Series. The warden service recognizes outstanding achievements or accomplishments of its officers each year by presenting them with various awards, but none of these awards have the same significance of magnitude as the "Watch."
Chris says he wanted to be a warden at one point. And he has done a couple of ridealongs which he enjoyed thoroughly. Hip-deep in his attorney work now, he says he looks forward to the day he can dedicate more time to joining the all-volunteer Sturgeon Guard, grouse hunting in Antigo and more and more - and more time on the Brule and in Vilas County rank as high priorities, too.
The Brule River is Wisconsin's living and powerful version of The Watch. The northwestern river, a popular place for residents and tourists alike, is what Haskell Noyes saw when inspired to honor Wisconsin's natural resources and wildlife by honoring those whose duty it is to protect those resources and those who enjoy them. "He (Haskell) always had a soft spot in his heart for the game wardens, who are on the front line of fish and wildlife issues."
Author Norman MacLean ends his semi-autobiographical story, A River Runs Through It, with: "... eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it."
In the case of the Haskell Noyes Family, it is the Brule River.