- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 3, 2016

GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) - Trees are the living roots of a community.

They branch out, shielding people from sun, storms and trouble. They speak through the whispers or roars of the wind. They share our history. Their struggles can be seen in their very structure, adding to the community’s beauty and ruggedness.

Gladys and Leland Landers knew that, reported the Gillette News Record (https://bit.ly/2aKym95). They likely planted hundreds, if not thousands, of trees in this corner of northeast Wyoming as they tried to shape the landscape and the lives around them.

Like trees, their roots ran deep. It began with a shared passion for the couple that made their home at what later became the Cam-plex Park in the late 1980s. It’s blossomed into much more than that, though.

Before the park took on its present shape, it was the University of Wyoming Experimental Farm, a place Leland and Gladys made their home starting in 1947. Leland planned to stay just a few years. Then, like many of us, he planted some unexpectedly deep roots and never left.

When UW closed and sold the farm to the city of Gillette and Campbell County in 1984, the couple moved from that location and started a new home on 40 acres east of Gillette off Timber Creek Road.

Leland planted scores of trees at the Experimental Farm and near his new home. Gladys and her ecology students likely planted hundreds more.

When the couple moved from the park, not surprisingly they said they’d miss their trees the most.

Both Leland and Gladys Landers are gone now. But they made sure, through their generosity, that those trees they planted and the people of the Gillette community will sink deep roots and prosper for many years to come.

Products of the Depression

Gladys was the louder of the two. Her delighted, cackling laugh could break through sound barriers. But she had a heart of gold and a strong sense of humor mixed with mischievousness. Sometimes people didn’t make it past her bluff and gruff. After all, she had strong opinions. She liked things done her way.

Leland was self-educated about many subjects, including the stock market. He built his own camper for his personal adventures. He loved to learn, and though more comfortable in the shadows, he was someone you could rely on. He always thought everyone was honest and he approached them that way; a gentleman in every respect.

He was an everyman of sorts. Never critical, always tinkering with ideas and encouraging others. He was quiet, but when he spoke, you learned to listen.

The two of them, opposites in some ways, grew up near Sundance during the Great Depression.

And, like many of that generation, they couldn’t forget those struggles. It shaped their lives.

They lived humbly. They didn’t need much and couldn’t abide anything going to waste.

Their frugality became something of a legend in the community, sparking running jokes and stories. Sometimes they joked about it themselves.

Gladys would buy her clothes and outfits in garage sales or off discount racks. Little of it was new. No matter the style and fashions of the day, she’d wear them until they wore out - including that 1960s double polyester - always trying to repair them until they just fell apart.

They were what their generation created.

That’s evident at their home off the appropriately named Landers Road, where great piles of wood, tires, fences, iron, old cars and trucks still occupy the prairie around their double-wide mobile home. The piles won’t fit in the bulging storage sheds and barns on the property.

The trees they planted and rusted hulks of bygone farm implements dot the sagebrush and nearby ridges, a testament of sorts to the passing of time and hope for the future.

Gladys would see an open bale of hay on the side of the road and the passionate horse lover would stop, get her pitchfork and pitch the hay into back of her truck to feed her horses later.

She attended nearly every Campbell County Land Board meeting until her death in 2001, that was another of her passions - Cam-plex. And at each meeting, she’d make herself a plate of food even though she didn’t serve on the board.

When she left, she’d take a plate of leftovers to her husband, who was waiting at home for her. It got to the point that Land Board members and Cam-plex officials would load up the plate for her to take to Leland so she wouldn’t forget.

Leland joked that they could eat at Perkins every week, buy their own hay for her many aging horses and still have enough money left over to pay their bills and live comfortably until many, many years beyond their lifetimes.

But in his way, he was just as guilty of collecting the material that might serve a use later. At one time that included power lines with glass-insulated covers still perched on the wire piled near a stack of massive, thick, stout telephone poles.

Thrifty millionaires

The good-natured stories of their eccentricities and thriftiness grew during their lifetimes.

Certainly, few thought of them as millionaires. That simply defied belief.

But to the great surprise of their friends in the community, they were just that. Millionaires. Literally. They had no mansions or a lifestyle of excess; quite the opposite, in fact.

Many only became aware of the couple’s wealth after their deaths when their estate spread more than $2.8 million - and likely much, much more - to causes in northeast Wyoming through bequests and trusts.

That’s a living monument to deep roots and what truly matters.

Making an impact

Clint Pickerel knew Gladys and Leland in a unique way.

He grew up in the neighborhood by the Experimental Farm. Gladys also was his teacher in grade school. They attended his church, the Gillette Christian Center.

Gladys died in a pickup accident in December 2001 while running to get oats for her horses. Everyone had always thought it was Leland, who was wounded in World War II and received a Purple Heart, who would go first.

Pickerel later laid his friend to rest when he conducted Leland’s funeral service in May 2013.

A year later, he was told the couple had bequeathed something for him and the church congregation. He was shocked, but grateful.

“I thought we could make some minor repairs,” he said about what the money could go toward.

But when he went to the bank and learned how much Leland had left for them, he was overwhelmed.

“I stared at the gal at the bank and I started weeping,” he said. “I had no idea of his love and that poured out of me while the gal was helping me at the bank. Here I was, a grown man, with tears in my eyes.”

He took a moment to gather himself before they completed the transaction.

“Leland’s gift will help three generations,” he says simply, preferring not to give the actual dollar amount.

It is substantial, he said. Some of it will accrue interest. Another portion will help pay for needed repairs to the church’s youth building. The rest is a “deposit into the future,” he said.

His son, Reagan Pickerel, is the new, young pastor at the church. He’s protecting the investment Leland made to the congregation with great care. It will provide the foundation for the congregation’s future, something not always guaranteed, Clint said.

More than that, it makes Pickerel think of the couple often.

“Leland was my friend,” he said. “I miss him.”

These roots run deep.

It’s a start

Leland planted hundreds of trees in the 1950s and 1960s as he took up the reins of the Experimental Farm and he continued to plant and raise more trees around the ridges surrounding their new home in southeast Gillette.

He had a unique formula and never deviated from it.

He would plant and water the trees for two years as small seedlings. Then they were on their own. The ponderosa pines, cedars and junipers either lived or died. He’d given them the start. The rest was up to them.

The couple continues to do that now, even in death, with the money they earned and accumulated over their lifetimes. The Landers’ trust includes an inheritance from Gladys’ sister and her family’s estate and her own wealth, as well as Leland’s.

The couple made a conscious decision to spread their wealth after their deaths. They weren’t seeking recognition, obviously. It wasn’t about that.

They wanted to give their neighbors and friends in northeast Wyoming a good start and a fair chance to succeed.

High school sweethearts

The two first met while attending Sundance High School. Leland graduated in 1939 and Gladys a year afterward.

Their growing relationship was well known by classmates. The 1939 yearbook is filled with jests and jokes.

“Leland Landers leaves Gladys Pattinson to Frank Blakeman with greatest regrets,” reads the senior class will in the 1939 Mato-Ti.

Another chart featuring all the seniors lists each of their weaknesses. Leland’s weakness was “Gladys and football.” His favorite saying was “darn it all.”

The senior class prophecy predicted Landers would become a popular writer.

“Our great novelist is now making a tour of the world so he can finish his masterpiece, ‘Learn About Women,’ of which Leland has a great knowledge,” it read.

Gladys was involved in many of the high school activities, including band, the pep club, academic clubs and more. Horses were her passion, though. She began racing horses for a neighbor in Hulett at the age of 9 and her interest in them never waned.

They married March 20, 1942, and made a home in the state between stints in the Army for Leland, who served until 1946 and then again from 1947-52.

Leland never became that great novelist, but he found satisfaction in the simple ways of the land. A gentle, reliable soul, he reported and recorded the weather in Gillette for most of his years in the community, before the advent of computers.

Remarkably, he knew most of the records in his head. He didn’t have to look at his notebooks.

And he fostered a spirit of adventure. He loved to fly airplanes and dabbled in the stock market, where he earned much of his wealth by investing in General Electric.

Gladys became a school teacher in Gillette in a career that spanned 37 years. She taught rural school and then junior high, working at Twin Spruce in home economics and seventh-grade ecology classes until she retired in 1982.

They had one thing in common that shaped their lives together. They remembered the desperate times of The Great Depression and the lessons that came with it.

Perhaps that’s why they chose to cultivate the roots they’d planted in the community.

Family friends

Claudia Martinson first met Gladys at the age of 10. The young girl lived in a trailer park near the Experimental Station and with a friend one day walked over to feed one of the ponies. That caught the attention of Gladys.

After some strong questioning about what the girls were feeding her horses, she took the pair under her wing. That was in the 1970s. From that point on, she gave them riding lessons and taught them how to care for horses, among other things.

In seventh grade, Gladys was Claudia’s ecology teacher and she encouraged the girls when they later competed in rodeos.

“She really loved to teach, but she was strict,” Claudia recalled. “She had a sense of humor. The horseplay would come from her. She was one of my favorites.”

Pickrel feels the same way.

Terri Lesley, director of the Campbell County Public Library, one of the benefactors of the Landers’ generosity, echoes their sentiments.

“I had Gladys Landers as a teacher in school. She was a little ornery,” Lesley said. “She was known to do things like hide frogs and snakes in, you know, those cubby-type desks and you would reach in and, ‘Ahhhhh!’ She was a little ornery, but I think she must have had a big heart to do this. So all is forgiven with the critters hidden in the desk.”

The library received $689,464 from the Landers’ Trusts. It helped the library earn the final amount needed to receive an endowment match from the state of Wyoming. That money will continue to provide for the future of the libraries in Gillette and Wright since only the interest on the endowment can be spent.

At the same time, another $384,484 will likely go toward expansion of the library through the library foundation.

Lesley was one of the students who planted the trees on the Interstate 90 overpass on the road to Cam-plex in Gladys’ class. She now drives by and thinks, ‘There’s Gladys’ trees,’” she said.

“She was a great teacher. She had a lot of passion for what she enjoyed,” Lesley recalled. “She was a character, somebody you never forgot.”

A pivotal year

Those memories have lasted far beyond Gladys herself.

She owned an average of about 21 horses at a time, although she once had as many as 50. She never sold her horses. Many lived until the ripe old age of 40 or 50 and died of natural causes.

The last of Gladys’ beloved horses died late this past winter, in fact. The two companions died within 100 yards of each other in the same pasture, said Claudia’s husband Jim Martinson, who found them.

“Gladys loved people, she loved the community and she loved her horses,” Claudia said.

That year of 2001 was pivotal for the Martinsons.

That summer, Gladys asked Claudia and her husband if they’d consider moving out to their place and becoming caretakers for the aging couple.

There was just one problem.

She forgot to tell Leland about it first. It didn’t take him long to catch on, though.

The Martinsons had two children ages 7 and 9 at the time. Claudia decided she needed to pray about it. After that, the Martinsons were sure about what to do, even though it was a dramatic change for their small family.

“There’s never been a doubt that we were supposed to be there,” Claudia said. “We thought we’d be taking care of Gladys.”

Six months later, though, Gladys was gone. They asked Leland if he wanted them to stay on after that. They offered to leave. But he would have none of it.

That’s when another great friendship took root.

Leland had a major impact on the Martinsons and their kids. He helped raise their son, Carson, 12, who was born after Gladys died.

Carson grew up riding on Leland’s lap as he mowed or watered his trees. He taught him how to count on road trips when they saw geese, turkeys, deer, antelope and wildlife.

Leland loved to go on those road trips. And Carson learned to love Leland.

“I truly believe in generational blessings,” Claudia said. Carson is living proof of that.

His middle name is Rees, in honor of the maiden name of Leland’s mother. That middle name continues a tradition in each line of the family. But Claudia accidentally misspelled it Reese on Carson’s birth certificate.

He threatens to correct that when he gets older.

“Leland was more cheerful, happy-go-lucky,” Claudia says. “Gladys, she had a sparkle. She was sturdy.”

The aging couple may have felt lucky to have found friends of such caring and quality to share their final days with.

But the Martinsons don’t see it that way. Their roots are now entwined with those first planted by Gladys and Leland.

They now make their home on that 40-acre spread, making sure it retains the deep imprint of Leland and Gladys Landers. On the driveway off Landers Road, there’s a metal ranch sign announcing their place. It still reads Landers, with horses prancing on top of the sign as the airstream of a jet splits the sky amidst the branches of a tree Leland planted.

“We were the lucky ones,” Jim concludes.

“We were blessed,” Claudia adds. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of Leland or Gladys.”

___

Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, https://www.gillettenewsrecord.com

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