Opinion: A man, his river and his dogs

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Commentary by Ward Degler

I doubt you ever heard of Joe Wilson. He was a Missourian, after all, and the only reason I knew him was through my daughter who lives there.

Joe had two missions in life. One was the Missouri River, which flows past his home in Jefferson City. The other was dogs.

On the north bank of the river where Highways 54 and 63 converge at the bridge lies a mile-wide floodplain that runs from the river to a ridge of limestone bluffs. That river bottom area has flooded more times than most people can count, inundating and ultimately wiping out forever the town of Cedar City and putting the metropolitan airport under water on a regular basis for as long as I can remember.

At the river’s edge is a small city park and a boat landing area known as Noren Access, named for former Conservation Department Director Carl Noren. The park never got much attention from the city parks department, and it, too, was often flooded and littered with debris, which usually stuck around until the next flood.

Wilson thought that was just plain wrong. He reasoned that if the city has a park, it should be kept up. He took his concerns to both the city council and the parks department. And when nothing happened, he took on the project himself.

Cleanup, sanitation and even electric lights came to the park, all paid for by Wilson. He even hauled a giant tree from the river so people could sit on it. For years, folks enjoyed the fruits of Joe Wilson’s labor.

His other passion was dogs. All dogs, especially strays. Joe loved them all, took them in, treated their health problems and made it his mission to find them homes.

It was this dedication to strays that brought Wilson to the frequent attention of the city. His small home was often filled to overflowing with dogs. Neighbors complained, fines were levied, but Joe never gave up his rescue operation.

I met Joe one summer afternoon at the park. He rolled up in his battered pickup to where my daughter and I were walking one of her dogs. When he opened the door, an avalanche of dogs erupted from the cab.

I never did figure out how many there were. We chatted for a while as the dogs explored the park, then he whistled and they lunged back into the truck, found their seats and were gone. I never saw him again.

Joe died last September after a long battle with cancer. Shortly afterward, the Jefferson City Parks and Recreation Commission renamed the park “Joe Wilson’s Serenity Point at Noren Access.”

No name has ever been more appropriate.


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