Ardis Mitchell sits in her Green Lake home with the letter from Nina Leopold
by Ariana Hones
When Ardis Mitchell of Green Lake thinks about Aldo Leopold she recalls a Christmas doll.
While most people view Leopold as a leader and developer of environmental ethics and conservation, those roles were secondary to Ardis’ family members, who viewed the naturalist as a caring friend and personal philanthropist.
“When I was a little girl, we lived out in the country on Mineral Point Road and my family lived on a farm of 44 acres,” Ardis said. “We had a house, we had food, but we didn’t have money for toys and that kind of thing. In that house, we had no electricity and no running water, but I had very good parents. I was little and if you can believe it very scrawny.
“One day a man came and wanted to know if he could use our telephone, which we didn’t have. But he got to talking to my parents and connecting with them. One thing I remember is that he looked at me and thought I looked a bit sickly and wanted to know if he could take me to the doctor to get care.”
While Ardis did not go to the hospital, her life was still about to change because of this man.
They learned his name was “Aldo Leopold.”
Aldo worked as a professor at the University of Wisconsin, wrote the best seller “A Sand County Almanac,” and was a founder of the science of wildlife management.
All of these things could potentially lead to putting oneself on a pedestal.
But not Aldo.
“We were always on the same level,” Ardis said. “At Christmas time he came out with his wife and kids with toys for us. And I will never forget this white wicker basket that had a doll in it. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Every year they would come for Christmas, often saying that Christmas at the Mitchells was their Christmas.”
Eventually though, the Mitchell family sold their farm and lost track of the Leopolds.
Years later, Ardis’ daughter was reading a newspaper article entitled “What would Aldo Leopold think about his land today?”
Aldo had passed away and his daughter, Nina Leopold Bradley, who had attended the Christmases at the Mitchell’s home, had written the article.
“My thoughts went this way: that people do nice things for people that don’t have [what they have] and then think ‘I wonder if those people ever remember what happened and what we did?’ So I sat down and I wrote a letter to his daughter,” Ardis said. “I wrote, ‘I don’t know if you remember me, but I want you to know that I will never forget about that doll and my sister lives in Florida and she buys toys for children that don’t have them and she wraps them in pretty paper and ribbons like the Leopolds did for us.’”
Ardis finished the letter off saying, “We remember and we appreciate what you did.”
That was 1979.
And Nina wrote back.
She had been touched by Ardis’ letter and happy to hear from such a long ago friend. Upon Ardis’ move back to Wisconsin from Illinois, their friendship rekindled. And when Nina came to speak on conservation efforts in the area, she insisted that Ardis take the front-row seat.
After finishing her planned remarks, Nina told the crowd, “It is a special night; my old friend Ardis is here. How far do we go back?”
Like Nina’s father, Ardis recalls Nina’s innate ability to level the field of hierarchy based on power and fame.
“Everyone is equal with the Leopolds,” Ardis said. “To me, we know these people by all the wonderful things that they do, but to know also that they were compassionate and caring people — that they reached out.”
Did that first encounter with Aldo or the beautiful doll at Christmas change Ardis?
“I was so young, but no matter who we meet everyone has an affect on your life,” she said. “I have been blessed with meeting wonderful people.”
The Leopolds were certainly on the list.
For Ardis, the magic of the Leopold family was the consistent continuation of its support.
“He met my parents in an old farm house and they connected,” she said. “Through blizzards and many years, they always came for Christmas.”
And the doll?
Ardis’ daughter now has it.