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Bill Rom of Ely called for the protection of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness when it was not a popular stand to take.

The pioneering BWCA outfitter died Jan. 20 at his home in Ely of an apparent stroke. He was 90.

Rom worked to limit planes to airspace well above the wilderness, led the effort to get bottles and cans banned from its woods and water, and supported the Wilderness Act of 1964.

"He just felt so passionate for wilderness that he felt compelled to speak up," said Kevin Proescholdt, former executive director of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, and now of the Izaak Walton League.

As a child, "he would hike for miles and miles just to go fishing for the day," Proescholdt said.

When Rom was a month old, his father died as the result of a mining accident.

As a youth, he gathered blueberries to sell, and he hunted and fished to help put food on the table at the family home. The family garden grew on the future site of Canoe Country Outfitters, the business he began in 1946.

He refined his knowledge and love of the wilderness as a student of author and environmentalist Sigurd Olson at then-Ely Junior College, completing a bachelor's degree in wildlife management at the University of Minnesota in 1940.

His daughter, Becky Rom of Edina, a dedicated conservation volunteer, said Olson urged Rom to take jobs in the wilderness, primarily with the U.S. Forest Service in the 1930s.

Jobs in the wilderness

Rom worked on building the Kekakabec Trail that runs from the Ely area to the Gunflint Trail, spent a summer in a fire tower on Lake Kekakabec and cleaned campsites and maintain portages for several years in the 1930s.

By 1941, he was a Navy officer serving in the war effort in the Pacific theater. He was part of the invasion force on Okinawa.

While in the service, he dreamed of the business he would launch. Upon his return home, he started with around 10 customers and some wood and canvas canoes.

When he sold the firm in 1975, he had 500 aluminum canoes for rent and 6,000 customers. A decade earlier, Argosy Magazine had dubbed him the Canoe King of Ely.

Proescholdt said Rom sometimes paid a steep price for his dedication. During the debate over flight restrictions, an explosive was set off near his home.

Over the years, Rom hosted meetings in his home, used his own plane to patrol for illegal activities and wrote letters pushing for wilderness protection. In 1974, he testified in Washington, D.C., against motorized access to the wilderness.

Town turns its back on him

In Ely, he was considered a traitor to an area with a poor economy, his daughter said. "He felt the wilderness was the best economy for Ely, because it was forever," she said.

In 1975, protesters blocked the entrance to his business with logging trucks during the important fishing opener and Memorial Day weekend. The picket signs read, "Run the Bum Rom Out of Town," Becky Rom said.

He sold his successful business later that year. "He never looked back, and he was never bitter," his daughter said.

The day he died, he wrote a letter to the Forest Service suggesting how it could get the bottles and cans out of the lakes that accumulated there before he got the ban in place.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife of 63 years, Barbara; three sons, Bill of Rye, N.Y., Larry of Ely and Roger of Anchorage, Alaska; a sister, Dorothy Boal of Los Angeles, and seven grandchildren.

A memorial celebration is planned for Aug. 6 near Ely.