Storied and celebrated Dixon man turns 97

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— Who says only the good die young?

Harry Russell, Jr., 96, is believed to be the oldest man on the Snake River. He will celebrate his 97th birthday today, though his actual birthday is Oct. 27.

Spend anytime listening to people who call themselves his friends, and it becomes apparent their respect is more than admiration.

"I've only known him all my life," Barbara Moss said. "He's always been very involved with the community, all the communities around here, really. He's one of those people who are very interested and very learned, in the community and in young people."

Barbara first met Harry because her father worked for him. After her father passed away in 1984, and Harry's wife, Jean, died in 1993 after 60 years of marriage, Barbara and Harry adopted one another, she said.

Harry and Jean descend from some of the area's first settlers. Before the two married, their families struggled about the valley's grazing lands.

Jean was a Beeler, a member of a cattle ranching family that had settled a lot of northern Colorado and southern Wyoming, Moss said. The Russells were sheep ranchers.

In the first half of the 20th century, cattle ranchers across the country were known to run sheep ranchers off their property, and Jean's brothers were no different, Moss said. They swore to chase the Russells out of Wyoming.

Harry and Jean's wedding ended the cattle and sheep wars out here, Moss said.

Harry and Jean used their business for more than making ends meet.

While owning and operating the Umbrella Ranch, one of the largest ranches around the Snake River, Harry sacrificed time to volunteer with the 4-H Club and Future Farmers of America.

"They're all nice people," Harry said of the youths he worked with. "I've just always felt we had a lot in common."

Their community meant a lot to Harry and Jean. They spent a lot of time and effort to better the place they had lived their entire lives.

Harry donated the land for the Dixon Airport. Jean was the force behind taking a rundown Savery, Wyo., schoolhouse, marked for demolition, and making the Little Snake River Valley Museum.

The couple did the little things, too, Moss said. They regularly hosted the 4-H Barn Dance at their home, which Moss said was well attended by kids from miles around.

Along with that softer side, he has a hard edge that compliments his personality, Moss said. Both sides are an extension of his "I will" mentality.

At 96, Harry is too much to keep up with for Moss, who is in her 50s.

"He's such a tough fellow," Moss said. "A few years ago, he broke his leg helping some friends with their cattle. He's legally blind, but he was out there all the same.

"He walked around on that leg for three days before he got any help. His son mentioned he had a kind of limp, and that's why we took him to the hospital."

This July, Harry fell and broke his neck. He walked around with that for a few months until Moss noticed he kept mentioning a slight pain.

"And if he says there's pain, it's bad," Moss said.

Harry still loves to travel, as Jean did. They traveled all over the world, from New Zealand and Australia to South Africa, which Harry said was his favorite out of their travels.

"I can't see to drive, but I travel every chance I get," Harry said.

He still travels to upstate New York every summer for a hog roast his friends put on. He missed it this year since his daughter visited from New Zealand.

Still, Harry likes to come home.

"My home is here," Harry said. "It's where I was made."

His friends and family will be there, in Dixon, today though, to celebrate his 97th birthday. There is a lunch planned for noon at the Dixon Senior Center and ice cream and cake for the rest of the afternoon.

Moss encouraged anyone interested to come and celebrate. People interested in lunch should call ahead to the Dixon Senior Center at 307-383-7892.

Collin Smith can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 209, or cesmith@craigdailypress.com

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