Coping with Grief
We would like to offer our sincere support to anyone coping with grief. Enter your email below for our complimentary daily grief messages. Messages run for up to one year and you can stop at any time. Your email will not be used for any other purpose.
On St. Patrick’s Day 1953 Lois Jeanne (Murphy) Manning and her husband Gordon Gene Manning welcomed their first born. The nurses begged them to name the boy Patrick, but instead they named him after his father and followed his habit of using middle names – Gordon Brent Manning.
Soon Gene and Jeanne gave Brent a best friend for life in brother Bill and a little sister Marla to dote on. Brent loved being their big brother, even if they didn’t share his dawn-to-dusk fishing habits on family vacations at Johnnie’s Resort in northern Wisconsin. Growing up in a small town, Brent was fostering relationships both in and out of the athletic arena with guys from long time Pawnee families - relationships he would rekindle with great appreciation later in life. After losing his best friend Alan Ahfield, to the Vietnam war, he became a lifelong champion of a scholarship in his name recognizing the outstanding efforts of athletes of strong character. This penchant for supporting young people pursuing their passions – especially passions he shared – would become a cornerstone of his life’s journey.
Brent’s love of science and the outdoors was stoked by the young enthusiastic science teachers at Pawnee High School, and by those he encountered in his bachelors and masters programs at Eastern Illinois University.
EIU gave Brent more than just professional training; he also gained cherished friends and a love for the discipline of the martial arts. During his time in Charleston, Brent became a second degree black belt in karate and went on to share his skills with other students. He graduated college, with a bachelors in wildlife Biology and a masters in Zoology. Soon after, Brent moved to rural Shelby County, and began working as an Environmental Chemist for the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad.
And then, as they say, one day everything changed. That life changing event for Brent was falling head over heels in love with Cathy Merriman. Together they spent the next four and a half decades nurturing a big and beautiful life. The saying goes that “behind every successful man is a supportive woman,” and that was definitely true for Brent. Cathy’s unwavering support, and consistent execution of running the household, empowered Brent’s career pursuits. Together, as a team, their love created numerous opportunities to leave the world a better place. to carry out his passion for leaving the world a better place far beyond the small towns of his early years.
For decades, Brent was universally well-respected as a fierce advocate for conservation and the outdoors. He was a consummate professional. He was only 35 years old when he took the helm as Director of Field Operations for the international wetlands and waterfowl conservation non-profit Ducks Unlimited. In that role, he brought a team approach to the membership and fundraising work of DU and expanded communication among and between local DU chapters all across North America. A few short years later, a call to serve came from none other than his own capitol city. Newly elected Governor Jim Edgar appointed Brent in 1991 to serve as Director of the Illinois Department of Conservation, the first time a biologist was at the helm, and when DOC was consolidated with other state agencies to become the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in 1995, Governor Edgar again called on Brent to serve. In all, under both Governor Edgar and Governor George Ryan, Brent served the people of the State of Illinois as natural resources protector-in-chief for twelve years. Grounded in his education and accelerated by his genuine respect of others, he became a leader others wanted to follow. Before he knew it, the mountains were calling. He next served as the Executive Director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. In addition to diving into big game challenges never faced before ([mountain] lions, wolves, and [grizzly] bears, oh my!), Brent and Cathy escaped to the elevation as often as they could – hiking and fishing their way through the mountains around their new home. Though family needs brought them back to Illinois much earlier than they could have imagined, Brent treasured his time as a mountain man. Brent finished his career serving as the Executive Director of the DuPage County Forest Preserve District, rounding out his experience making natural resources accessible to those in a suburban setting. Throughout his career, Brent brought his energy to national and international conservations efforts, as well, from lobbying for conservation-friendly language in the federal Farm Bill to serving on the Executive Committee of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
His professional accomplishments and accolades could fill a book, but Brent would likely have us instead focus on the people he met along the way and the good work they were able to accomplish together.
More than anything, Brent excelled at building and maintaining relationships. An old resume’s reference page reads like a Who’s Who in the world of outdoor recreation and natural resource conservation. But those names, giants in their own right in their industries, were more than just connections to Brent. He spent time getting to know people, learning about their life, sharing stories, meeting their family, and spending time together whether that meant fishing the Snake River in Idaho, elk hunting in New Mexico, visiting national parks in Utah, deep sea fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, or goose hunting in the Mississippi delta. Brent took time with people, all people really. He genuinely met people where they were at, showing great kindness to those who’s path crossed his.
Brent loved his friends - old friends, new friends, friends from work, friends from church, neighbors, family of his grandkids’ friends. He graciously accepted his role as “honorary” dad to so many of Sarah and Jess’ people. He was always up for a chat. Arms wide open with a great big grizzly bear hug. Always had a story to share. He was great at picking up the phone to check in. So many people will be missing those check-ins, but luckily his best stories have been retold so many times, we know them by heart.
It has been said that it was love at first sight for Brent when he laid eyes on a young Cathy Merriman. Over the course of their marriage, they shared the kind of love that only deepened over time, their friendship rivaling the greats. The kind of love that is consistent, expansive, inclusive of flaws and open to growth. Spending countless hours together working at the farm, on the water, or in the mountains, they preferred to experience life side by side. It was always better when together. In recent years, you would be hard pressed to see one of them without the other. A phone call to just Cathy or just Brent? Forget about it, you were getting both of them. They cultivated the type of love that transforms the individual from the inside out. Heals, prior wounds and empowers a life of loyal servitude to their most valued possession. Their love. Their love created loads of adventures all across the country, but, by far, their greatest adventure was loving and raising their two daughters, watching them grow into kind, smart young women (Sarah’s mouth smarter than desired) and talented athletes (Jessica may own this one but a nod to Sarah as they let her suit up too Ha!). Brent tested Sarah’s burgeoning interest in the political process, winning a steak dinner wager that their views were more aligned than she expected. Brent also tested Jess’ tomboy prowess finding that she shared every bit of passion for the outdoors, always happy to follow along for any fishing or hiking excursion.
Despite all the other demands on his time, Brent rarely if ever missed anything his girls did. He was always there supporting the girls and their friends. Brent loved so many of the people the girls brought into his life like family. He shared in their triumphs and provided grace and encouragement when they fell short…and he was not shy about giving his full-throated support. Brent was the unofficial leader of a cheerleading squad made up of middle-aged men, leading PAW-NEE cheers across Central Illinois. Who remembers, 1.2.3. POINT PAWNEE!?
Brent was so proud of his girls that sometimes he thought his heart might burst. And he could not have been more proud of the men they chose to share their lives with. He loved them as though they had been his sons since birth. He recognized that each was the perfect partner for his daughter and trusted him to love, care, challenge, and support his most precious gifts, his girls. He loved and supported the lives they built together and could rest easy knowing each of them found safety and true love in the hearts of their partners.
If Brent’s superpower was relationships, nowhere did he flex those powers more than with his family. He recognized how special his family was, full of genuine love, respect and spending time together. From hunting and fishing together, to celebrating wins and mourning losses, Brent’s family was a cherished treasure. He was always quick with a quip, would burst into song when the occasion called for it (which happened more than one would expect…we do not call it the Manning Family Musical for nothing!), could play a mean game of “Buzzy Bee” or pattycake, and just absolutely soak up the fellowship that came with spending time with family. Brent was an extraordinary uncle. Whether sharing his passion for hunting and fishing with nephews, watching tons of terrible bitty ball of all sorts, or lending his voice to impersonate Elvis or Santa, in his nieces and nephews he found new and different outlets for his love, building on and compounding the love he has for his siblings and Cathy’s siblings. When it came to hearts bursting, the two people who call him “Papa” top the list. Brent was so nervous when Samantha Kate was coming into
the world, that he literally set up a camp chair in the hallway outside of the OR. From the moment he set eyes on her, it was done. He was securely wrapped around her finger forever. And when Jack came along three years later, looking suspiciously like his Grammy with those big blue eyes, Brent had a boy to his call his own for the first time. He knew well enough that there was nothing a boy could do that a girl could not, so both of those kids got decked out in camo, tucked into the UTV, and swooped into the woods he loved. Just this fall, Brent got Jack all set up with a bow to grow into, and Jack promised to shoot even better than Sam. You see, Brent did not just talk the talk. When he said “and take a kid in the truck with you,” he meant it. He has instilled a love of the outdoors in these two that will stay with them forever.
It is a nearly impossible task to sum up the life of a man like Brent. In recent days, he’s been called a gentleman, fierce advocate, devoted father, beloved friend, respected professional, man of strength and integrity, and loving husband. All of those things are true, but none tell the whole story. Brent’s most important title is Child of God. His love of family was second only to his love of God, and his faith grew stronger with each passing year. In that comfort we do not say “goodbye;” instead, we say “until we see you again.” Job well done.
Brent was preceded in death by his parents Gene and Jeanne Manning. He is survived by his loving wife Cathy (Merriman); daughters Sarah (John) Kerley and Jessica (Matt) Saey; grandchildren Samantha and Jack Kerley; brother Bill (Christine) Manning; sister Marla (Marc) Bourne; and numerous beloved nieces, nephews, and great-nieces and nephews.
The family is welcoming friends and family for a visitation and celebration of life Thursday, February 1, 2024, at St. Jude Catholic Church in Rochester, Illinois from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. A funeral Mass will be held at St. Jude Catholic Church at 11:00 a.m. on Friday, February 2, 2024, with a luncheon afterward at the Parish Center. Burial at Horse Creek Cemetery in Pawnee will follow.
In lieu of flowers, the family will accept donations to further Brent's legacy of conserving natural resources and making the outdoors more accessible to all people. Donate directly here: ilconservation.org/manning