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James “Jim” Tom O’Rourke

November 16, 1942 – March 5, 2024
Chadron, NE

James Tom O’Rourke, 81, died unexpectedly in Chadron, NE, March 5, 2024.

Jim was born to Joseph and Jean (Moeller) O’Rourke on November 16, 1942, in Alameda, California. From California the family moved to Fort Collins, Colorado where his father Joe finished his forestry degree and was employed as a District Ranger, U.S. Forest Service, residing at Stub Creek Ranger Station. At age nine, Jim and family moved to Bayfield, Colorado, residing there for four years. At the beginning of eight grade, the family moved to Buffalo, Wyoming where Jim graduated from high school in 1961. During the time in Buffalo, the family resided at Hunter Ranger Station from where Jim explored the Bighorn Mountains in depth, accompanying his father on his forest and range work, developing his interest and love of range work, and emulating his father’s work. 

Jim received his Bachelor of Science in Forest and Range Management from Colorado State University and his Master’s Degree and PhD in Range Management from the University of Arizona. 

Jim taught range science at Chadron State College from 1988 to 2002 and helped establish the Range Management program at CSC which continues to have high numbers of range students. Even though he retired in 2002, he remained active in the range management program teaching classes and taking students on field trips. Jim always promoted the CSC range program worldwide. He enjoyed hosting the “O’Rourke Twilight Tour” during the Range Short Course. Prior to CSC, Jim taught range science at Utah State University from 1979 – 1986.

Jim was a passionate champion of rangelands both domestic and international. During his 60-year membership with the Society for Range Management (SRM), he served in many positions including President in 2001, Second Vice President and First Vice President 1999, 2000. And Board of Directors from 1994-1997. He was also President of the Nebraska Section SRM in 1994. He received SRM’s top honors including the Frederick G. Rennner Award, Fellow Award, Outstanding Undergraduate Teacher Award, and Range Management Service Award. He also received numerous awards from other professional organizations including the Leopold Conservation Award; Presidential Citation from the American Forage and Grassland Council; Distinguished Service Award, Chadron State College; International Professor of the Year, Utah State University and Conservation Education Award from the Upper Niobrara White Natural Resources District, Chadron, NE. 

Jim’s international rangeland management work was extensive. His leadership and dedication within the International Rangeland Congress (IRC) spanned 26 years. He served on the IRC Continuing Committee for 13 years, from 1995 to 2008, including president between 2003-2008. This is the longest term of any serving member. He spent over 10 years living and working in Africa, (2 years each in Morocco, Tanzania, and Nigeria). In addition, he worked in many African countries, Mongolia, China, Columbia, Australia, and for many organizations including but not all, Near East Foundation; US Agency for International Development; Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations; United Nations Development Programme, World Bank, University of Minnesota, Rabat, Morocco, and the Peace Corps.

Jim was instrumental in the establishment of the “International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists 2026” which is a worldwide event that recognizes the importance of rangelands and sponsored by the United Nations Environmental Assembly ( Jim served as Global Chair of IYRP from 2015 to 2022.

Jim served in the U. S. Army as an Education Specialist on the DMZ of Korea 1967-1969.

After the Army he married Nancy McCoy of Big Horn, Wyoming. Jim adopted Nancy’s two wonderful boys Charles and Keith. Their wonderful daughter, Valerie, was born in Arusha, Tanzania. 

Jim met his second wife, Lora Hawkins of Ophir, Utah, and they lived in Kaduna, Nigeria for two years before moving to the RUJODEN Ranch south of Chadron, Nebraska. Jim and Lora’s twins, Seth and Shannon, were born in Chadron and were Jim’s pride and joy.

The ranch is named after his grandparents, Frank and Jerene O’Rourke’s children – Ruth, Joseph and Dennis. Jim worked tirelessly on the ranch implemented a short duration-high intensity grazing system, building fence and water developments, planting 1,000’s of trees and managing the timber and riparian areas. 

At the time of his death, Jim was working tirelessly on his new passion, writing a book on sheep wagon builders. Jim and Lora’s collection of 21 sheep wagons are housed in a building with the goal of establishing a museum that represents a sheep wagon made by each of the major builders. Jim was restoring his eighth wagon at the time of his death.

Jim was also currently working as a Technical Service Provider under the Natural Resources Conservation Services CSP program. He worked with over a 100 ranchers teaching rangeland assessment and livestock grazing management. Jim thoroughly enjoyed working with ranchers throughout the Nebraska panhandle and sandhills.

His other passion was restoring the historic 1870 Lawrence Brothers Mercantile which sits in the historic mining town of Ophir, Utah. 

Jim is survived by his wife Lora of 38 years; daughter Shannon and son Seth; daughter Valerie; son Keith and his wife Denia O’Rourke (daughters Kaelyn and Kiana) and son Charles and his wife Sonja O’Rourke (daughters Madison and Ariana and son Charles); brother Jack and his wife Mary O’Rourke (sons Mark and Michael) and sister Janice and her husband Jeff Cowger (son Matthew and daughter Carrie) and many cousins, nieces, nephews and friends.

Jim was a compassionate husband, loving father, dedicated brother, and friend to so many. Jim lived his life to the fullest and touched many, many lives and will forever be remembered. 

A celebration of life will be held June 22, 2024 at 11:00 a.m., at the RUJODEN Ranch, 61 Country Club Road, 5 miles south of Chadron, Nebraska.  

A memorial has been established for the completion and publishing of Jim’s “Sheepwagon Builders” book. Donations can be sent to Homestead Bank, P.O. Box 1351, Chadron, NE 69337.  

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