Gentelman Jim

I found retiring, longtime state Bear Project Leader Jim Cardoza at his desk Tuesday (Oct. 6, 2009), just after noon, at Westborough’s MassWildlife Field Headquarters, where he’s kept his office during my entire Recorder tenure; more than 30 years, almost unimaginable to me, the South Deerfield bad boy who told many a teacher and coach to, quite frankly, take a hike to Satan’s kingdom. You know the way those things usually turn out. Yeah, of course, I was the one who needed walking shoes. And walk I did, defiant smile gleaming, euphoric to be rid of a dreadful place with little to offer except aggravation. I guess it always came down to respect with me. If I had none, I showed less; not the way to go for any kiddies out there allowed to read this.

So here I sit, penning a column for a little newspaper, laying out pages, writing heads and cuts, toiling to make ends meet on a meager, ink-stained salary. But this isn’t about me, it’s about Jim Cardoza, with whom I have nurtured a professional relationship, one I value because of his knowledge and rare accessibility, not to mention the fact that he’s been steward for two of the most successful wildlife-restoration projects ever seen this side of the great Mississippi.

I phoned Cardoza to get the final numbers for the September 8-26 bear season, 17 days that threatened to break a record, which, he didn’t know off the top of his head. But never fear, it seems that the former dunce filling this space found the needed handwritten records in his  slightly disorganized (yeah, right!) files; right there in the first drawer I opened, fifth or sixth sheet of paper examined. So, for the record, we did not set a record this year, but were close. When all the cards are counted, either 137 or 138 bears will have been killed. Cardoza was out of town on Wednesday and had one report sort of hanging, thus the incomplete figure. But at this point, does one freakin’ bear really matter in the big picture? I don’t think so.

Yeah, I know, I could have been a good little scribe and waited for the snaily press release to arrive. But what I have is, as the saying goes, close enough for government work, which it is, thus good enough for me. The all-time September record, reached in the consecutive seasons of 2003 and 2004, is 142.
But, enough about bears. Back to Cardoza, whose star-studded 40-year career will come to an end Friday (Oct. 9, 2009), when he’ll ride off into the sunset knowing his was a job well done. How else to describe the bespectacled, professorial wildlife biologist who oversaw the restoration of bears and turkeys, both of which today present thriving statewide populations that are sure to expand.

When I spoke to Cardoza, I articulated my appreciation for his cooperative demeanor whenever I had called, even in these tough times of having to first go through the screen set up by the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. I’m not going to wait for the press release to throw out some sappy quote saluting the man. No, I’m just going to say that during my long tenure here, Jim Cardoza was always there for me, even returned calls — a rare courtesy — and always had his facts straight before calling. A perfectionist, there is no mystery why his programs succeeded beyond expectations. He willed them to where they are today. To use a few old clichés, he left no stone unturned, dotted his i’s and crossed his t’s, was a stickler for detail.

I have dealt with many of his colleagues over the years, going way back to Jim McDonough, Dick Cronin and Bill Pollack, later Wayne MacCallum, Steve Williams, John McDonald and Bill Davis, he the absolute best PR man ever before taking his current job as Central Wildlife District manager. All of the aforementioned were good men and humble servants, but no man helped me more, or more often, than Jim Cardoza. Not even close.

Sure, Jim had his critics, many of them the same people who view me as traitorous for criticizing their sacred NRA. But I always defended Cardoza as smart, accessible, accountable and professional to a fault. How can anyone criticize that?

The last time I saw Cardoza in person was on the Whately/South Deerfield line, at that big gas station/Dunkin’ Donuts/Subway monstrosity that used to be Spuds ’n Buds. I was pumping gas, heard a familiar voice to my right, looked over and saw Cardoza among a crowd gathered near a fleet of state vehicles. MacCallum was also there.

They both gave a warm smile and friendly greeting when I approached. They were participating in a field trip to a nearby bears’ den with a retinue of state legislators. Cardoza and MacCallum both made me feel welcome, like they were genuinely pleased to see me, no passionless handshake and cold “howdyado” typical of politicians.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got. Jim Cardoza will be missed. Whoever steps into his shoes has a tough row to hoe, as weedy and rocky as it gets. Jim Cardoza had the Midas touch for wildlife restoration. Till my final day, if I remain here where my roots lie, I will think of him whenever I pass a flock of turkeys or slow down to let a bear and her cubs cross the road.

Jim Cardoza brought them back, made an impact of historical proportions.

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