WILLMAR, Minn. -- One after the other, 12 new graduates of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Academy stepped on a stage in August to have someone special in their lives pin a new 600 series badge on them to start their new careers.

The 13th graduate, and last to reach the stage, stood before his wife, Jessica, and was surprised by the not-so-shiny badge she pinned on him.

It was badge number 34, which had been worn proudly for 22 years by Stephen Westby’s late father, Gary.

“I almost lost it right there on the stage,” said Stephen Westby, a veteran of both military and law enforcement service, and not one to get all emotional on you otherwise.

“Special,” he said of the privilege to carry his late father’s badge in his new career.

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“He is a spitting image of his dad, a chip off the old block,” said Mike O’Brien of Willmar. Now retired, O’Brien served as Gary Westby’s partner from 1988 until Westby’s tragic death in 1997. A close friend of the Westby family, O’Brien describes Stephen as a big guy, very intimidating, yet soft-spoken with the ability to “rev it up a little bit” when the need is there.

In other words, just like his father. “He was the kind of guy who, if he wrote you up for a citation out in the field, you’d end up thanking him at the end of it,” said Dave Pederson, recently retired as the director of the nonprofit Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center in Kandiyohi County. Westby was a driving force in creating the Environmental Learning Center, which became a reality shortly after his death.

“He was a champion, for sure,” said Pederson, explaining that Westby was driven by his belief in the importance of educating young people about the outdoors.

A building on the 400-acre site is named in Westby’s memory. A program that O’Brien helped launch, now known as the Cindy and Gary Westby Environmental Scholarship program, continues to provide high school graduates with internship opportunities with the DNR focused on the outdoors.

Gary Westby was 51 and driving to watch a son play football in St. Cloud on Oct. 15, 1997, when his 1990 Chevrolet van was struck by a Paynesville Police Department squad car. The police officer was in pursuit of a fleeing motorist. Westby died at the scene, while his passengers, including wife, Cindy, and friend Michael Erickson were injured.

Along with his wife, Westby left behind four young sons, including Brian, Benjamin, Adam and Stephen, and a daughter, Andrea. Cindy died of cancer on Sept. 2, 2009 while serving on the Prairie Woods ELC board of directors.

Gary Westby taught his children a love for the outdoors. Stephen still remembers his father bringing home all sorts of orphaned or injured critters through the years. He accompanied his father on some of his duties, such as removing beaver dams. There were family camping trips,including the time out west when the Westby family tent with its seven occupants was the only one standing after a wild storm ripped through their campground.

Most of all, Stephen remembers a father who had a passion for his job. He still recalls the time when his father was driving the family home from church, spotted a group of all-terrain vehicle riders in violation of the law, and made a stop.

Stephen said he’s sometimes surprised that his older siblings didn’t follow their father’s footsteps. He didn’t really expect to be the one. He graduated from the New London-Spicer High School in 2006. Uncertain about his goals, he joined the Army Reserves in 2008. He served with a military police company originally based in Rochester, but moved later to Wabasha.

He married Jessica Lipinski in 2010. Two weeks after exchanging vows, he learned that he was to be deployed from 2011-2012 in Tajikistan, north of Afghanistan. After returning, he attended school at the Minnesota School of Business, but realized where his passion really belonged. He enrolled in the Central Lakes College in Brainerd to earn a degree in natural resources law enforcement.

“I grew up quite a bit and got done with my schooling,” he said.

The then-director of the DNR’s conservation officers advised him to get some law enforcement experience before applying for the Conservation Officer Academy. He served as an officer with the St. Cloud Police Department for five years, and found that he loved the work. “Very, very busy,” he said of that job. It brought with it the adrenaline rush of responding to crises as well as the heartache of witnessing the strife that many experience in life, including innocent children.

While he knew he’d miss the police officers he served alongside, he had no hesitation when he got the opportunity to attend the academy. Not too long after starting the 16-week program, he mentioned his interest in possibly carrying his late father’s badge someday. He didn’t really get a definitive answer, and subsequent inquiries were no different. Unbeknownst to him, his superior had already made up his mind. He was going to make it happen.

Westby is currently serving with an experienced CO in field training. He will soon begin his first assignment as the CO stationed in Madison in Lac qui Parle County. Stephen and Jessica purchased a home in the area so that their young children can get settled and start school.

Without a doubt, he said, his decision to become a conservation officer has everything to do with his father.

“This is where I was meant to be,” he said.