Bronson boy grows into refuge leader

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By Lou Elliott Jones

The first 11 years of David Viker's life were spent in suburban New York. And he fell in love with the outdoors while camping with his family in the Catskills Mountains.

Then came the change that would determine his destiny; a divorce transplanted his family to Bronson.

"The things I liked most about the outdoors in New York, I liked about Florida," Viker said in a telephone interview from his office in Atlanta, Ga., where he oversees 130 refuges in 10 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico with 750 employees. 

"I crabbed off the dock in Cedar Key, went scalloping in Steinhatchee, camped at Manatee Springs," he said. “I spent many a weekend afternoon going up and down the Suwanneee.

"I enjoyed the outdoors of all of North Florida," he said. 

Viker, whose mother Trish Viker still lives in Bronson, said he started his career by volunteering at the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge in 1991.

"Within an hour of stepping foot on the refuge I knew what I wanted to do with my life," Viker said. "I am more oriented that way (working outdoors) than research and science. I always was interested in managing the people and the land."

Viker said the refuge staff taught hm a lot. "I was impressed with the maintenance staff; without degrees these men had such a practical knowledge of the woods and operating engineering equipment," he said. "I learned as much from them as I did in my academic classes."

His first paid position with the refuge system was as assistant manager of the Tensaw River NWR in Northeast Louisiana.

And for those who grow bored hearing the advice that volunteering can lead to a paid job. Viker is proof that volunteering works.

"Volunteering at Lower Suwannee gave me the edge over other applicants," he said.  He alternated school and work at the refuge, participating in a co-op program while attending the University of Florida. He earned a Bachelor's degree with a major in wildlife ecology and minors in forestry and botany.

Viker has not strayed far from his Bronson roots. The secret to his success: "Because we had simple means growing up."

"I think about growing up to a single mom on a single wide mobile home," he said. "To make ends meet she had to leave her job as a secretary and go to a police academy and work nights at a prison to put my brother and I through school.

"I have a deep gratitude that the American people would give me a job."

His family lived in University Oaks. "I lived in that same home from sixth grade all the way through college." His friends, he said, were all within "100 yards of one another."

Viker and his brother, Erik, now a professor at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, should be familiar to folks in Chiefland. The Chiefland Citizen at one time dubbed Erik,  "Mr. Theater of North Florida" for his work with the Suwannee Valley Players. 

"I was in more than a dozen productions," David Viker said. "I was an athlete in high school and not good enough to play college sports so my brother said 'Hey, we need another guy to get involved.’”

Viker said the experience has helped him in his work with his public speaking.

While in high school he was on a state runner-up basketball team coached by Kelly Beckham. "He was my coach for five years. His assistant Phillip Knight is as close to a mentor as I had in Levy County."

He said the year they went to the championship was amazing. "It was almost like the story of 'Hoosiers,' we were never supposed to win in district because we played Hawthorne," Viker said. "We were a tiny 1A school they were a big 1A school."

When people ask where he is from, Viker tells them, "We had 600 people and one traffic light."

"There's very few things I don't miss about growing up in Levy County. But we have seasons," he said. 

For his life he says he has "a deep gratitude and a desire to serve. ...I see myself as a servant leader. It starts with me at the bottom."

Lower Suwannee NWR is a special place for him. "I'd step on the refuge and step back to what Florida was 100 years ago. That is a rare experience."

He said the service must be careful to not get into a preservation aspect, but to mimic what nature would do on its own.

"This is real Florida.”

Viker says it is tough for him to go home.  "With 130 national wildlife refuges it's hard to go back to the one I know better than the others, but I would like to have a chance to highlight the folks down there and the great work they do."

But rumor has it he can come home after all, and his doting mom will be there to greet him. Viker is due to attend the installation of a new manager for the Lower Suwannee refuge in September.