Gentleman Farmer from Illinois / by Dan Haifley

I was 26, she was 38. 

It was off and on, but we had fun.

Her son was 12.


One Christmas we went to Marco Island, Gulf Coast of Florida. 

It was the three of us, her parents, her sister and her boyfriend.

They had two houses side by side near a marina where their boat was.

The second house had just the two of us.

In the morning the dolphins sang from beyond the sand...


Nearby were islands, shaped by mangrove trees in salty water.

Their roots capture sand and mud. 

They anchor in the soggy sandy soil, until moving water pries it loose.

Or the roots get weak.

New trees take hold while others age.

That’s how the islands shift and shape.

Some catch so much sand they have treeless edges with seashell carpets.


The parents were an Illinois couple, he was an older gentleman farmer.

She was a graceful seventy-something who held their lives together.

We hunted seashells.

As we fingered them like glass shards in the sand, Mom told me she’d once dated a young radio broadcaster named Ronald Reagan.

He was President by the time we picked over that beach in the bright December sun.


Early one morning the father, the young boy and I hopped into the boat.

Three rods, tackle and bait, out to the Gulf.

Looking for Grouper.

An hour later we lowered the lines.

Rolling seas, gentle breeze.

The boy was catching beautiful grouper. One, two, three.

My rod jumped. 

I reeled. Spinning, spinning.

Bait gone. Nothing there.

Helping the boy bring in fish, the old man didn’t notice that his rod jumped. 

Up it jerked, bounced off the hull. Into the sea it went…the handle and reel plunged down, into the white caps.

His lips pursed, his neck grew red, his eyes a fury.


“I loved that pole.”

I turned my side to him to gird against the profanity I knew was coming.

He aimed his mouth…

He spit it out.

“What – a – shame.”

That was it.


That night, we ate grouper, all caught by the boy.

None by me, what a nice discussion topic.

In that beautiful house near the mangrove islands.

On Christmas morning there was a brand new fishing rod,

Under the tree,

For the gentleman farmer from Illinois.




Dan Haifley has been Executive Director of O’Neill Sea Odyssey since 1999. He raises funds for its core and special programs and he is a leading advocate for hands-on environmental education, presenting papers at numerous conferences. Dan served as District Chief of Staff for the late California Senator Henry J. Mello from 1993 until 1996; Executive Director of Save Our Shores from 1986 to 1993; and Community Affairs Officer for PG&E in the Monterey Bayfrom 1997 to 1999. Dan holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is past Chair and member of the Santa Cruz County Commission on the Environment, co-chairs the Dominican Hospital Community Advisors Committee, and previously served on the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council from 2001 to 2007 and currently serves there now.  In collaboration with UCSC Institute of Marine Sciences Director Gary Griggs he publishes a weekly column in the Santa Cruz Sentinel and received the 2011 Ocean Hero Award from Save Our Shores for his work to fight offshore oil and establish the Monterey Bay Sanctuary.  He is married to Rebecca Haifley and has two grown children, Aaron and Julia.