Hike this rugged piece of land north of the Pinnacles rock formations and it’s clear why Jim Whitley loved it so.
New England aster and goldenrod bloom among the weeds. Old prairie grass waves in the breeze. One day last week, a snake slithered along the rocky bluff above Silver Fork Creek and disappeared along with most any other sign that man ever walked the oak and hickory woods.
Whitley, who retired from the Missouri Department of Conservation and died in 2009, had dedicated his life to preserving the state’s natural lands. Upon his death and that of his wife (who died in 2010), they arranged for the 102-acre tract he bought in the 1960s to go to North Central Missouri College, the school he attended as a young man when it was Trenton Junior College.
With a condition: the land must be kept as is, protected from development by a conservation easement. He wanted it preserved as an outdoor classroom.
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But the college in Trenton, Mo., has different ideas. It has sued the trustee of the estate, arguing that the land would be worth more if permanent buildings, such as houses, could be built there. The college clearly stated its “sole interest is in maximizing the fair market value of the real estate.”
The action bewildered and angered friends of the Whitleys. The lawsuit, they say, dishonors the couple’s memory and charitable gift.
“Jim and Joanne didn’t want that land developed, and the college knows that,” said Hank Ottinger, a longtime friend of the Whitleys. “But they want to get all they can for it and apparently use the money for something else.”
Officials with North Central Missouri College declined to comment, referring questions to H.A. “Skip” Walther, a Columbia attorney. Walther did not return phone calls.
This is not the first time a restricted gift to a college has turned into a fight. Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Brandeis are among many universities where philanthropy has turned feudal. But this one, over a little nugget of what’s left of Missouri’s natural beauty, sure has turned ugly.
On one side is the college and its argument that as the sole beneficiary, it should have final say on what happens to the Whitley land.
On the other is a collection of environmentalists, naturalists and friends across the state who shared Jim Whitley’s passion for rivers and streams, natural plants and wildlife. They formed a group called Friends of Jim and Joanne Whitley to fight for the couple’s wish to be honored.
The trustee of the Whitley estate has accused the college of misusing her signature on a legal document. And the Greenbelt Land Trust of Mid-Missouri, designated to oversee the property, says a document filed by the college was altered and recorded without Greenbelt’s consent or signature.
The Whitley gift to the college also included $450,000. Friends of the couple wonder if some of that money is being used by the college to challenge Jim Whitley’s final wish.
Either of two things probably could have prevented this fight.
First off, Jim Whitley could have asked North Central Missouri College officials if they would like the gift of land for use as a natural classroom. The site is not exactly convenient for the school — more than two hours away. If they had said “no,” he might have found another beneficiary to carry out his desire for the property.
Nobody seems to know if that conversation ever took place.
The second thing would have been for the Whitleys, who had no children, to have finalized the conservation easement before they died. They did not.
So that task fell to a woman the couple had chosen to be trustee of their estate. Jim Whitley had worked with Pamela Haverland at the Conservation Department, and according to friends, she was like a daughter to the couple.
In January 2014, the college sued to have Haverland removed as trustee, saying the conservation easement she proposed gave Greenbelt Land Trust too much control of the land.
“Defendant (Haverland) is not acting in accordance with her legal obligation to solely serve the interests of the plaintiff,” the suit said.
Haverland responded that she also had an obligation to the Whitleys.
Joanne Whitley had served on the board for Greenbelt, a nonprofit whose mission is to protect ecologically significant land.
“This was an intimidation lawsuit and nothing more,” Ottinger, on behalf of the Friends of Jim and Joanne Whitley, wrote to the president of the college’s board of trustees. “The board should consider how greatly upset Jim and Joanne would be if they knew how shabbily Ms. Haverland has been treated at the hands of NCMC and its attorney.”
The two sides, however, worked out an agreement, and in January 2015, Walther, the college’s attorney, filed the easement with the Boone County recorder of deeds.
“But it was different than the one Pam had signed,” said Steve Jeffery, Haverland’s current St. Louis attorney.
Greenbelt, too, said it had been “created without their knowledge or consent.”
In a letter dated March 23 to North Central Missouri President Neil Nuttall, Greenbelt President James Gardner said Walther’s easement “altered and removed” clauses, making it impossible for the land trust to protect the property. The land trust filed an affidavit with the recorder’s office, saying Walther’s easement was not acceptable.
Nuttall told the Columbia Missourian in April that though the easement allowed some acres for home construction, the protection went far and beyond what the Whitleys wanted.
“Anyone that thinks the Whitley family’s wishes aren’t being completely honored in this are misrepresenting what the facts are,” Nuttall told the newspaper.
On Sept. 9, the college again sued to have Haverland removed as trustee.
Haverland, who now works for the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment.
Jeffery said Haverland remains committed to upholding the Whitleys’ wishes.
John George drove north on U.S. 63 out of Columbia and talked about Jim Whitley, making clear he was speaking as a friend and not as a wildlife supervisor for the Missouri Conservation Department.
George took Whitley’s place on the Hawthorne Chapter of the Missouri Native Plant Society and attended his funeral. He doesn’t understand the school’s motivation. The difference between selling the land with the easement and without is not that great, he said, certainly not worth sullying a charitable gift and paying a lawyer to do it.
“He’d (Whitley) always said that a teacher at the college inspired him to continue his education and that’s how he came to do the work he did,” George said. “He wanted to share this land with them.”
George’s car left the highway and soon stirred dust on a dirt road. He stopped, broke out the tick spray and headed off on foot across the Whitley land. After pointing out a deer bed, he stopped in the tall brown grass sprinkled with goldenrod as birds sang from trees.
“His desire was for this to be a living classroom,” George said, “available for the Trenton school to bring students here and teach them about Missouri’s natural communities. He had his friends up here a lot and they would grill hotdogs and enjoy this land.”
He walked from there into the woods and down toward a creek bed before climbing up a rocky bluff. He stopped on a wooded point, surrounded by a nearly hundred-foot drop on three sides. As far as he knew, he said, Whitley had turned down every opportunity he had to make money off the property.
“He lived a life a conservationist would be proud of,” George said. “He was never controversial, never yelled.”
“The people who knew him and Joanne are doing the yelling now.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182