Sometimes, things just don’t go as planned. And sometimes, that makes the final result that much better.
Jill Tonn has a relationship with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation spanning more than a quarter of a century. To Jill, her job as a regional director (RD) was a calling and Wyoming’s RMEF volunteers were family. She carried out her duties on a legendary level.
An RMEF life member since 1993, Tonn spent nine and a half years as a volunteer including chair of the Powder River Chapter. She also helped start the Big Horn Basin Chapter and served as Wyoming state chair. She hired on as an RMEF RD on May 1, 2006. She later became RMEF’s first female senior RD.
During her 14-year tenure, Wyoming’s efforts consistently placed it at or near the top in fundraising compared to all other states. Six times over her 14 years Wyoming claimed the top spot! And remember, Wyoming has the lowest population of any state in the union by quite a ways. What Wyoming does have is 22 chapters, more than 8,200 members and a volunteer force that unabashedly supports RMEF’s mission. They are a dedicated, passionate, knowledgeable and energetic bunch. In fact, thanks to the funding volunteers generated by hosting banquets, membership drives and a myriad of other events, Wyoming was the first state to protect or enhance more than one million acres of wildlife habitat within its borders. And Jill was there to help make it all happen.
Okay, back to the “things didn’t go as planned” scenario. Shawn Kelley, Wyoming RD, gives the play-by-play that led to an emotional and magical evening honoring Tonn.
It was spring of 2020, Jill announced her retirement right before the COVID-19 shutdown. Just a few weeks later, I received a call from RMEF headquarters notifying me that co-founder Charlie Decker planned to present Jill with the Founders Award at a banquet in Wyoming for her significant contributions to RMEF and its mission.
I thought, no problem, this will be a relatively short shutdown and we’ll be okay. Plotting with HQ, the bronze Founders Award statue showed up at my office. All I had to do is get Jill to a banquet but as the coronavirus cases rose across the nation, Jill became concerned for her husband and sister about exposure.
Our first plan was Laramie. I was like, “Yeah I can get Jill to Laramie. She used to cover the chapter. They have a great committee that is committed to the mission. Here we go.” We start the planning process and bang, it turns out PBR (Professional Bull Riders) is the same weekend! Jill loves the PBR and has a package to go. Scrap that plan.
The next chance would be the winter state leadership team meetings. I plan to work a social for Jill (since she scheduled and canceled three previous retirement parties). She is all in and ready to go but before that can happen, Yvonne Decker (Charlie’s wife) reaches out to HQ to say Charlie is double-booked and cannot make the event. On to plan C. This time the goal is Thermopolis, but Jill’s home chapter was in a holding pattern due to covid.
Lander was the first scheduled Wyoming banquet of the year on April 17, 2021, and it is not very far away from where Jill lives. In 2019, RMEF nominated Haven Laird of Lander to receive an RMEF Youth Award but she never received it because coronavirus cancelled her banquet. So, the Deckers are in and I call Jill to ask her to be in attendance. She remained very hesitant due to possible coronavirus exposure and did not want to return home with it. I am in scramble mode so suddenly I say, “Well, Haven never was presented her award and the Deckers felt bad so they are coming and want you to present it to her because if Lander held its banquet you still would have been on staff.” She agrees. Now, it all needs to just work out.
On April 17, the Deckers are there and so is Jill. Charlie gives me last-minute instructions to place the bronze out of sight. I look at him and say he was supposed to bring it. I literally thought I was going to have to scuffle with a founder even though I had it the whole time. I am not even sure he laughed. We get ready, hide it under the stage and we are off. I call Jill up and she spells out all the wonderful things Haven did during her time as an RD. She told everyone things we already know, which you can summarize as Haven is a rock star!
Jill then tries to get off the stage quickly as I take the microphone from her, but Charlie blocks her. I told the crowd, “Before you go, Charlie wants to say a few nice things about your tenure.” He pulls out his notes and you can tell that he is struggling to hold his composure. There are tears coming down his cheeks, but he makes it through, presents her with the Founders Award, offers a big bear hug and Jill turns and says to me, “You are a turd. I had no idea.”
“Jill brought her infectious passion and enthusiasm across the Cowboy State helping numerous RMEF chapters fundraise to make a real difference in elk country when she was a regional director and now retired,” said Kirk Murphy, long-time colleague and RMEF director of northwest field operations. “I would be willing to bet she will continue helping as a dedicated volunteer to ensure the future of elk for generations to come because she truly believes in the mission of RMEF.”
Final note: we reached out mid-morning on a Friday to Jill to confirm her exact hiring date as well as some background information. This is what she messaged us: “I am back volunteering and am heading to Greybull for the Ladies Night Out as we speak (I am pulled over to send this!) I am so honored by this award, and humbled, and give credit to the amazing volunteers I have been blessed to work with.”
Some things never change. Thank you Jill!
(Photo source: Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation)