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Highflier: George Leubuscher as a young woman.
Courtesy of Nancy Patton

A Girl Named George

In 1913, a year before the guns of August thundered and plunged Europe into World War I, a 10-year-old girl in Pittsburgh joined a Junior Audubon Club. A lot of little girls joined these clubs in those days, but this one was unique. Her name was George, and when she died 93 years later in December 2006, she was still an “Auduboner.”

George Sargent Janes Leubuscher had made her home for the past 25 years in Naples, Florida. By all accounts she was a remarkable woman. An enthusiastic aviator, she flew solo for the first time in 1940 when she was already the mother of three. During World War II she was a member of the Civil Air Patrol and the Air Corps Reserve, for which she flew patrols and trained pilots. A crash landing left her with serious neck and facial injuries, but Leubuscher kept flying and made her last landing in Florida in her 90s.

From an early age, animals consumed her attention. She kept a variety of pets, observed their behavior, and grieved when they died or disappeared. Dogs and horses remained a part of her adult life and her children’s experience. So it does not seem a coincidence that for all her life Leubuscher also loved birds. While keeping a continuous membership in Audubon for all those years, she worked hard to make sure that other people were able to enjoy birds, too. Living in Connecticut in the 1960s she served as president of the Housatonic Audubon Society and later maintained an Audubon connection in Florida.

“She loved coming over here,” recalls Ed Carlson, manager of Florida Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Even in recent years, when Leubuscher couldn’t get out much on the boardwalk through the swamp, she continued to bring family and friends. “George would sit here in the center, which she had played such a big part in bringing about,” says Carlson.

Leubuscher became aware that the increase of visitors to Corkscrew had rendered its visitor and educational center obsolete. In 1997 she organized  a tour of potential donors and then invited them to a dinner party. “I just encouraged people to enjoy themselves and feel comfortable enough to discover what they could about the swamp from the staff and officers, without them feeling like they were in a shakedown,” she recalled in her autobiography, A Girl Named George. But never shy, she let the donors know she had made a substantial gift and asked them who would keep it going with a half-million dollars more. A man promptly volunteered, making the anonymous donation. Ultimately, Leubuscher helped to raise more than $5 million for sanctuary projects.

And what about “George”? It seems that her father, a strong-willed man who made his money in steel, wanted to pass on his name. Before leaving on a trip to Europe, he told his pregnant wife to give the name George to the expected child (which he was certain would be a boy). The baby turned out to be a girl—and she never let it or anything else stand in her way.—Frank Graham Jr.

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