In Memory: Kelson Michael Vaillancourt and James Abram Schneck

Young wildlife professionals Kelson Michael Vaillancourt, 21, and James Abram Schneck, 23, died in a car accident in May 2009 on their way to conducting a bird count, part of their job as temporary workers for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. What follows is a remembrance of the two men written by TWS member Bridgette Flanders-Wanner.

My first interactions with Kelson and Abram began March 2009, while I was recruiting summer biotechs. Both impressed me with their interviews. Kelson was articulate, thoughtful, and forthright. I asked him how interested he was in the job. He told me that with his interest in both plants and birds, working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be a “dream job.” The fact that the job was important to Kelson was important to me.

In Abram’s interview, he was congenial and quick-witted. His references described him as brilliant. Due to an uncertainty in funding, I had to tell Abram that we could not guarantee that his position would be funded. Several days later, he called me back and inquired whether he could volunteer to gain work experience he felt he needed before starting graduate school. We were struck by an individual who was willing to travel halfway across the country to volunteer because he wanted to gain experience for his future career aspirations. To be that focused, sure of himself, and willing to take a risk shows true passion and commitment.

Kelson and Abram started work on the same day. It was evident every day that I worked with them that they both were invested in their work and wanted nothing more than to do a great job. They did not hesitate in their willingness to leap into a new task and do it well. Their commitment ran into the evenings of their off-work hours, when both would sit down and study their birds so they would be sure to be prepared for the survey work they were hired to do.

Kelson was strikingly genuine and honest. He described himself to Abram and me as “a shy guy who doesn’t know when to shut up.” Kelson told us about his gardening. He said, “I do vegetables and flowers, but to be honest, I like the flowers better!” He was unique because he wasn’t afraid to admit who he was. It seemed as if he wore his heart on his sleeve.

Abram was intensely inquisitive. He quizzed me regularly on our outings in the district on myriads of topics. You could tell that learning was a passion for Abram.     

One of my biotechs once teased me that I was like a mother hen with all of her little chicks trailing behind her. I laughed, but the more I thought about it, the more the analogy resonated with me. As with all of my biotechs, I realized how much pride I took in helping Kelson and Abram prepare for their futures and careers in biology. Kelson and Abram were important to me and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Although they were with us only a short while, we have many small but wonderful memories of them, amplified by their loss—the jokes and laughter, the stories of adversity overcome while working in the field, and a common bond over work we all found fulfilling. They were different young men with different aspirations. Kelson was the young naturalist with a knowledge and appreciation of the natural world that ran deep. Abram was a budding academic, whose previous professors and mentors had described him as a brilliant student. But they were the same in that they both had bright futures ahead of them. They were both remarkable young men with incredible depth and character. These guys were going places. It was a blessing to have had the opportunity to know them. They are unforgettable individuals.

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