Surrounded by a crowd of friends and colleagues, Randy Cross soaked in the praise on Sunday for a career well spent at a ceremony held in the town of Waldo.
The state’s bear management and monitoring program will never be the same.
For more than 30 years, the good-natured Cross led the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife field crew that both captured bears that would join the state’s study group, and then visited the dens of the female bears they captured during the winter months.
Over those years, Cross took politicians, film crews and journalists to visit those bears, all in the name of helping Mainers learn more about the iconic ghosts of the big woods.
And every time I talked with Randy Cross, I learned something I didn’t know before.
Cross is a generous, patient teacher, and he knows more about black bears than anyone I’ve ever met, or even heard about. He knows where they live, what they eat and when they will head to their dens each year. He knew how to trap ‘em, how to sedate ‘em, and how to translate the reams of data he and his crew gathered into information that would serve management goals.
Watch: Bear crew studies black bears near Ashland
But that’s only a piece of the puzzle, I learned over the years. He also retired as a man universally respected — loved isn’t too strong a word — by his peers.
Lee Kantar, the state’s moose biologist, works on the third floor of the DIF&W’s Bangor office. Cross was always three levels below, in the basement, in a space he often left dimly lit, kind of like a bear den.
But Kantar got to know Cross as a colleague, and a friend, as many others in the crowd had.
“If you’re lucky, at some time in your life you get to meet someone who’s truly unique and special,” Kantar said. “Someone who excels in what they do and shares what they do. If good fortune shines on you, you get to work with them. Further still, if you got to work with Randy, you were privileged. A finer teacher and person is hard to come by.”
Kantar worked with Cross on a few field experiences, including an effort to tranquilize a moose in Bangor, and said he always figured having access to Cross was like having access to the best tool in a biologist’s toolbox.
“He might be ‘the bear man’ to all, but to many of us, he’s Randy: A guide, a mentor, a friend, one of a kind,” Kantar said. “He’s a legend not just because of the bears, but because of who he is outside the catch circle.”
Lisa Feener spent a decade working with Cross both on spring trapping crews and on den crews. She said her mentor was selfless, caring, patient and kind.
Watch: Family bond key to bear research team’s work in the Maine woods
“He created a work atmosphere that was open for personal growth, full of humor and blended strangers’ lives together to form a tight family,” Feener said.
Feener said he took chances on people, and trusted them to learn, adapt and become key members of a team that had to depend on its other members in order to succeed.
“He gave me a chance. He hired me as a volunteer trapper in 2006. I had zero experience,” Feener said. “In 2013, he gave Jake [Feener] a chance. He, too, had zero wildlife experience, but Randy knew how to build a team.”
And, as it turns out, a family. Lisa and Jake worked together. They fell in love. Now, they’re married.
“For Jake and I, our lives are forever changed by him,” Lisa Feener said.
In other, smaller, ways, others had the same experience. And one by one, those who praised Cross on Sunday said their lives were better, more full, for having met and worked with Cross.
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 207-990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke. His first book, “Evergreens,” a collection of his favorite BDN columns and features, has been published by Islandport Press and is available wherever books are sold.