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Everything about Stacy Dvorak was special.

Her smile. Her determination. Her goals. Her accomplishments.

And her funeral.

A huge American flag hung from fire truck ladders outside church. Pheasant tail feathers sprouted everywhere among flower arrangements. A half-dozen hunting dogs sat, mostly still, with their owners in the crowded church.

And soldiers and former soldiers, some in uniform, some not, shed tears for the passing of a remarkable young woman whose passion for hunting, the outdoors, conservation and the military touched many lives.

In a life cut short May 9 by a brain hemorrhage, Dvorak, 41, of Belle Plaine, impacted wildlife habitat as a driving force for the Scott County Pheasants Forever chapter. But she was perhaps better known for launching and spearheading Charlie’s Hero Hunt, an annual free pheasant hunting and target shooting event held to thank soldiers for their service.

And she started Operation Puppies for Soldiers, which gives veterans free puppies, again in appreciation, and to put a smile on their faces. The dogs at her funeral were among 19 given away so far.

“She did more for conservation in her 41 years than most people do in twice that time,” said Scott Roemhildt,” Department of Natural Resources information officer and former Pheasants Forever employee. “She was one of those people always making a difference, but didn’t want any of the limelight. It’s a real loss.”

Added Roemhildt: “The thing that made her unique is that she was a young woman. We’ve got some amazing conservationists in the state, but young women are a select few.”

Even her motivation was uncommon.

“A lot of people come to Pheasants Forever because of a passion for bird dogs, a love of habitat or interest in getting kids outdoors,” said Bob St. Pierre, a Pheasants Forever vice president. “Stacy came because of a sense of community. She loved Scott County. She loved being able to see what this chapter could do on the land, through projects. She loved the military hunt and the puppy program. But ultimately it was the people and the smiles she was able to create that brought her in.”

Her mom, Mary Dvorak of Henderson, said Stacy recovered from back surgery in 1999 and thyroid cancer in 2005, and those health issues perhaps sparked her keen appreciation for life.

“She just decided she needed to give back. She loved the military and at one time wanted to go in, but couldn’t because of her back,” Mary Dvorak said. “ The Vietnam vets were forgotten, and she didn’t want that to happen to these guys [serving in Iraq and Afghanistan].”

Paying it forward

Another Scott County Pheasants Forever member, Harland Lepker, came up with the idea of a special pheasant hunt for soldiers. Stacy seized on the concept and became its driving force, tenaciously raising money so 50 soldiers can attend the event each March at Caribou Gun Club in LeSeuer. Besides pheasants, they shoot sporting clays and enjoy lunch. Volunteers and their dogs guide the hunters. About 350 soldiers have participated since the event was launched in 2009.

“The hunt became a passion, the love of her life,” Mary Dvorak said. “She wanted to get married and have children, but never got that opportunity. All these soldiers were her family.”

Stacy, in an emotional speech to soldiers at the inaugural hunt, explained the idea:

“This is our way to say thank you for serving our country. You guys have sacrificed a lot, and missed out on hunting seasons. So this is our thank you.”

Then she started the puppy giveaway, again raising money to buy puppies for soldiers.

“Stacy was the definition of ‘pay it forward,’ ” friend and outdoor radio show host Billy Hildebrand said.

James Borgardt, 25, grew up in Belle Plaine, served in the Army in Iraq and has been a longtime friend of the Dvorak family. He received a chocolate Lab-German short-haired pointer he named Avery.

Now Borgardt and Avery help out every year at the hunt, guiding soldiers.

“It’s a great event,” he said. “Stacy was a wonderful woman. Hunting is what she loved, and she just wanted to say ‘thank you’ to the veterans.”

Borgardt and Avery were at the May 15 funeral, as was Rob Hed, 52, of Plymouth, a Navy veteran, and his dog, Narmy.

“My dog is the best thing I could possibly have; I don’t know where I’d be without him,” Hed said. As for Stacy: “She left a huge mark on a lot of people.”

Carrying on a legacy

Stacy fished and hunted wild turkeys, deer and pheasants. Both Mary Dvorak and her husband, Jim Legg, have been longtime activists for the Scott County Pheasants Forever chapter, and Stacy got involved and was head of the chapter’s annual banquet, its critical moneymaking event.

For her efforts, she was named Pheasants Forever Minnesota Volunteer of the Year in 2011.

She attended Pheasants Forever state meetings, DNR mentored hunts and staffed booths at Game Fair and the Northwest Sportshow.

“She’d do anything to help the cause of conservation,” St. Pierre said.

And there was more.

“She talked two soldiers out of suicide,” Mary Dvorak said.

Charlie’s Hero Hunt (named after the family’s dog) and Operation Puppies for Soldiers will continue, Mary Dvorak vowed. But for now, Stacy’s family — including her military and conservation families — are left to cope with her sudden death.

Mary Dvorak was asked how would she like her daughter remembered.

“For her smile. Her passion for life, her passion for the military and for giving back. In our society too many people take, but not many give back like she did.

“I’m very, very proud of her.’’

Doug Smith • doug.smith@startribune.com

Twitter: @dougsmithstrib