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Leo Drey Dies; Missouri’s Largest Private Landowner Until He Gave It All Away

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For decades, city boy Leo Drey drove across dusty Ozark roads, introducing himself to farmers and offering to buy their timberland. Much of that land was nearly worthless from years of neglect by lumber companies.

But Drey had a grand plan to make money from the wrecked forests. He would restore them, selectively harvest and sell some timber while preserving the rest for nature lovers, recreation and gradual harvesting later.

To the surprise of many, Drey’s pioneering ideas worked. His forests thrived and he became a multimillionaire. His buying trips paid off and eventually he became Missouri’s largest private landowner.

Then he gave it all away — to a foundation he set up to preserve the land.

Leo A. Drey died Tuesday (May 26, 2015) at home in University City, about two weeks after suffering a stroke. He was 98.

He lived in a modest house with his wife, environmental activist Kay Drey.

Mr. Drey was tall, slender and quiet, with a Jimmy Stewart aura. As he spoke, he often used his hand to cover his eyes, as if to protect them from the light. Friends said it was his way of concentrating.

A state Conservation Department official predicted in a 1980 news story: “One of these days, Missourians are going to wake up to Leo Drey and they’ll sanctify him.”

Leo Albert Drey (pronounced “Dry”) grew up in Clayton, graduated from John Burroughs School in 1934 and Antioch College in Ohio in 1939.

In 1937, he was 20 and traveling with six other students in Shanghai when war broke out between China and Japan. Their hotel was bombed, hundreds of civilians were killed and their professor was wounded in both legs. Mr. Drey helped fashion a tourniquet from the professor’s tie, but the man later died.

Mr. Drey served five years in the Army before and during World War II, then returned to St. Louis as assistant to the treasurer of the old Wohl Shoe Co. He didn’t last long.

“I always told everybody my job was to count the money, and there was so much of it, I got tired,” Mr. Drey recalled. “But actually, I was not cut out for business.”

He was cut out for the outdoors, as he discovered while floating the Ozark streams that became so popular with thousands of visitors.

So he left his job in 1950 and looked around about six months before deciding to mix conservation and the timber business.

Much of the Ozarks was depleted from being cut by lumber companies and damaged by fires farmers frequently set so their cattle and hogs could forage.

Such land was worth just to an acre. Mr. Drey found owners were happy to sell for just a little more.

His first purchase, in March 1951, was a tract of Ozark timber land in Shannon County. It was 1,407 acres of oak, much of it rotten. But Mr. Drey had been impressed with the pines when he walked the land with the owner.

Two years later, he was helping to fight a fire on state land about 3 a.m. During a break, a forester flopped down next to Mr. Drey and confided that his company wanted to sell its Missouri timber lands.

It was nearly 90,000 acres of the old Pioneer Forest in the Ozarks. National Distillers Products Corp. of New York had bought it in 1948 to harvest white oak for whiskey barrel staves. The tract was said to be the nation’s largest hardwood forest under private management.

After six months of negotiations, Mr. Drey got the land. He used his savings and an inheritance — his father had been a glass jar manufacturer (“Drey’s Perfect Mason Jar”).

Since the 1800s, lumber companies had practiced clear cutting all trees from a section of land.

Mr. Drey’s plan, developed with forestry experts, is called individual-tree selection. Trees scattered through a plot are selectively cut, like thinning a garden. The remaining trees grow taller and bigger — and the forest still looks like a forest.

Foresters monitor tree growth so they know when to harvest again.

The result: No ugly scarred land, as with clear cutting. A year after harvesting, a visitor would have to get on the ground and look for stumps to see any signs of felled trees.

“It’s a way that is not only economically beneficial, but the forest remains aesthetically pleasing, and people can still use it for hiking, camping and other recreation,” Mr. Drey told the Post-Dispatch in 2001.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the American Forest Product Industries are among those who have recognized Mr. Drey’s pioneering work.

In 2004, Leo and Kay Drey donated 146,000 acres in Pioneer Forest to a charity that will continue Mr. Drey’s mission of sustainable forestry. The donation, valued at 80 million, was said to be the largest private gift of its kind in Missouri and one of the largest philanthropic gifts in the nation that year. The charity is named the L-A-D Foundation, for Leo A. Drey.

Until he retired, Mr. Drey took a MetroLink train from the Delmar Station to his office downtown in an unpretentious room in the Syndicate Trust Building. He had no secretary and worked alone.

Mr. Drey helped form the Open Space Council in 1965 and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment in 1969, an environmental group for which he was the first president.

In 1964, he was instrumental in the establishment by Congress of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, a national park along the Current and Jacks Fork rivers. Mr. Drey contributed 35 miles of easements along the banks of the two rivers.

He bought Greer Spring in 1987 for .5 million to keep Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. from acquiring it to bottle and sell the water. He later sold it at a loss to the U.S. Forest Service.

He acquired other significant natural areas that eventually became state-managed lands, including Grand Gulf State Park, Dillard Mill State Historic Site and Dripping Springs Natural Area.

At his office, his answering machine message was: “I’m out planting a forest. Please leave your name and number and I’ll try to get back to you before it matures.”

In 1969, 35 years after he graduated from Burroughs, Mr. Drey offered to lease the school 44 acres of Ozark Woodland in the Pioneer Forest for an annual fee of . The school dubbed the area Drey Land, which remains a rustic retreat.

Mr. Drey donated his body to the Washington University School of Medicine. No services will be held.

Survivors, in addition to his wife of 59 years, include two daughters, Laura Drey of Durham, N.C., and Eleanor Drey of San Francisco; a son, Leonard Drey of St. Louis; and one grandson.

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“Leo Drey Dies; Missouri’s Largest Private Landowner Until He Gave It All Away”