How American Eagle Foundation began…
Over the years, the combined efforts of four people helped create American Eagle Foundation. This page honors their contributions and shares the story of how American Eagle Foundation began.
Bob Hatcher — Eagle Expert, Lifetime Conservationist, and Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency Coordinator
Bob Hatcher is one of the primary reasons the AEF exists today, having generously volunteered thousands of hours of time and expertise to the restoration of bald eagles.
With a B.S. Degree in Biology from M.T.S.U. and an M.S. in Fishery Biology from Auburn University, Hatcher began his work in conservation at the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency in 1978.
The TWRA maintained a hacking/release project at Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, and Bob Hatcher was one of two individuals who led and guided these programs. Bob went on to coordinate bald eagle hacking/release efforts at four more Tennessee locations.
In 1983, Al Cecere, a country music production assistant in Nashville, made an unannounced visit to Bob Hatcher’s TWRA office. Al had been shocked by an AP photograph of over 2 dozen bald eagles illegally killed in another state. He asked if he could volunteer with TWRA efforts to restore eagles in Tennessee. Bob concluded that Al’s entertainment contacts were tools he could use to support eagle advocacy. Bob suggested that any funds raised by Al should be divided between the TWRA’s eagle restoration program and the very needy Mt. Juliet eagle rehab program, the Cumberland Wildlife Foundation of America, headed up by Kevin Schutt.
Bob also reached out to John Stokes, a Master Falconer and Assistant Curator of Birds at the Memphis Zoo, and informed him about the Cumberland Wildlife Foundation (CWF) to see if John would be interested in becoming part of this eagle rehab, breeding, and educational facility in Mt. Juliet, TN. Funds brought in through Miller Brewing company in 1985 were made available to CWF. Cumberland Wildlife Foundation decided to hire John, who joined the group in 1986.
From 1987 – 2001 Bob served as the TWRA Non-Game and Endangered Species Coordinator, initiating the restoration of bald eagles in Tennessee, which resulted in the release of 284 eagles over 22 years.
Following the initial contact between Al and Bob, Hatcher became a mentor for the National Foundation to Protect America’s Eagles (later called the American Eagle Foundation), sharing his guidance, wisdom, experience, expertise, and enthusiasm for bald eagles.
In 1992, Dollywood assisted the National Foundation to Protect America’s Eagles in constructing a bald eagle hack/release tower on Douglas Lake in Dandridge, Tn. Meticulous hacking and release records were compiled by Bob Hatcher for both this hack tower and a subsequent one built in 2000.
When American Eagle Foundation’s first website was launched in 1997, Bob Hatcher was a valuable asset in providing content and guidance for AEF’s first internet presence.
Bob served as national chairman of AEF’s Bald Eagle Grant Advisory Team from 2012 – 2014. This blue-ribbon panel of recognized bald eagle experts selected and issued grants from money obtained by the sale of Bald Eagle Commemorative Coins to appropriate private, state, and federal Eagle care and recovery projects.
Numerous articles and presentations were created by Bob to promote the work of American Eagle Foundation. One of the most popular of these is “Challenger Opens Doors” – a publication by the TWRA; Bob Hatcher also wrote Bald Facts About Bald Eagles in Tennessee (2013) with Scott Somershoe, State Ornithologist Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
Bob also served as AEF’s EagleMail correspondent, responding to questions from the community, and always providing a wealth of information to others from his years of experience in the field.
On July 22, 2014, Bob Hatcher, long-time supporter, backbone, and beloved friend of the American Eagle Foundation passed away. At a celebration commemorating his life, a young bald eagle named “Hatcher’s Legacy” was released at Bell’s Bend Park overlooking the Cumberland River on July 15, 2014
John Stokes — Master Falconer & Rehabber
A Master Falconer, John Stokes has been involved with raptors since 1977 when he was first hired by the Memphis Zoo to work in the Bird Department. In 1979, he was promoted to Assistant Curator of Birds. In 1983, while still employed at the Memphis Zoo, John was personally involved in the rescue of a bald eagle that had been shot by hunters and left to die in Eastern Arkansas. Unfortunately, the eagle’s severely injured left wing had to be amputated after infection set in. John was given the license to care for this eagle (named Osceola) by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
While at the Memphis Zoo, Bob Hatcher called to inform John about several people in Nashville who were trying to start an eagle rehab, breeding, and education facility in Mt. Juliet, TN. Bob asked John if he would be interested in joining this group, called the Cumberland Wildlife Foundation (CWF).
John joined the CWF in 1986 as Director of Wildlife, supervising the rehabilitation of hundreds of native raptors and other wildlife as well as conducting several hundred educational programs per year. He arranged for Osceola to be transferred to CWF. Here, Osceola served as an educational ambassador, educating thousands of people about the bald eagle and becoming the first bald eagle with security clearance to the Pentagon.
Eventually, funding evaporated for the Cumberland Wildlife Foundation. Bob Hatcher suggested that John Stokes and Al Cecere join forces. Bob pointed out that they were both working toward a common goal and could potentially create a partnership. Al was a fundraiser with numerous entertainment contacts; John had no experience in fundraising. Al had no avian husbandry or handling experience, but John had years of expertise in avian care, training and wildlife management. As a result, a partnership was formed.
In November 1989, Kevin Schutt, the president of the Cumberland Wildlife Foundation, met with Al and John and signed over all the Cumberland Wildlife Foundation of America/WPC assets (and liabilities) to the National Foundation to Protect America’s Eagles (NFPAE). In order to succeed in their goal to protect and conserve the bald eagle species, the NFPAE now needed a sponsor.
In 1989, an eaglet was blown from a Louisiana nest at a few weeks of age. Found by humans, hand raised, and then released into the wild in July of 1989 from an Alabama hack site, this young juvenile bald eagle was unable to survive on its own. Unfortunately, it had become human-imprinted and associated humans with food. Bob Hatcher had the eagle delivered to the care of John and Al at NFPAE. John named the eagle Challenger in honor of the astronauts whose lives were lost on the Challenger space shuttle launch in 1986. John knew this eagle was special and began training Challenger with the assistance of Jim Heptinstall.
As a result of John’s training methods, Challenger was the first bald eagle to free fly at over 300 major sporting events, national conferences/ceremonies, fundraisers, and schools. Challenger was also chosen by the U.S. Government to fly during the ceremony announcing the delisting of bald eagles from Endangered Species Act protection. Alongside American Eagle Foundation staff, Challenger participated in Inaugural events for President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush.
In 2017, Challenger retired from all free-flying sporting events but still makes gloved appearances as an educational ambassador. Read more about Challenger here.
James Rogers, a famous singer/songwriter, was on the board of the NFPAE and contacted Dollywood Theme Park in Pigeon Forge, TN. A meeting was set up with Dollywood President Ken Bell and Dave Anderson, Head of Attractions. NFPAE met with Dollywood and shared their vision for an eagle feature at the park. Ken wanted to know if John’s raptor show could be adapted to a theme park setting. John’s unique bond with his raptors combined with his established training methods gave birth to the Wings of America Free-Flighted Bird show.
By mid-January 1991, construction began on Eagle Mountain Sanctuary and the Wings of America Theater inside Craftsman’s Valley of Dollywood Theme Park. When Dollywood opened in March of 1991, Dolly Parton and special guests Bob and Delores Hope attended the first Wings of America show.
In 2004, John formed his own company Wings to Soar, a non-profit organization whose goal is to raise environmental awareness through educational programs featuring non-releasable raptors. He and his wife Dale share their passion for the welfare of birds of prey and the overall health of the natural world as they travel the country, bringing to others their wealth of knowledge and heartfelt devotion for nature’s remarkable raptors.
In 2018, John became a member of the Board of Directors of the American Eagle Foundation, where he serves with distinction as Vice President.
Al Cecere — Eagle Advocate, Past President of AEF
In 1983, Al Cecere happened to see an Associated Press photograph in The Tennessean newspaper that showed two dozen bald eagles shot by poachers in the Dakotas. At that time, Al was involved with freelance entertainment production (motion pictures, TV shows, concerts, etc.) in Nashville, TN and Los Angeles, California (1975-1988). In this capacity, Al was able to network within the country music industry. This was enormously helpful when he embarked on fundraising to advocate for the bald eagle.
Soon after viewing the photograph, Al made an unannounced visit to the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency to offer his services on behalf of the bald eagle. He met with Bob Hatcher and asked how he could help TWRA restore eagles in Tennessee. Bob immediately recognized that Al’s contacts could support eagle awareness through fundraising. Al agreed to fundraise for the TWRA’s eagle restoration program and the Cumberland Wildlife Foundation in Mt. Juliet, TN by creating Save the Eagle Project.
Al reached out to Miller Brewing Company to aid in raising funds for the bald eagle, and Miller Brewing responded by sponsoring Save the Eagle Project, generating nearly $400,000 to support private, state, and federal eagle projects.
Al also began developing and producing bald eagle conservation public service announcements to raise funds. His efforts resulted in commitments from high-profile country music stars, including Dolly Parton, Charlie Daniels, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, and many others. In addition, Johnny Cash recorded Joe Carter’s song, Through the Eyes of an Eagle, to benefit the Save The Eagle Project.
In 1989, NFPAE took over the financially strained Cumberland Wildlife Foundation, including all their birds, their assets, and their liabilities. At this point, Al Cecere and John Stokes joined forces to create a partnership that would eventually become American Eagle Foundation (AEF).
During his time at AEF, Al tirelessly lobbied Congress on behalf of bald eagle conservation, ultimately ensuring Challenger’s image and name was recognized on a legal tender United States Mint coin.
Al continued to serve NFPAE/AEF as President and CEO until his retirement in 2018.
James Rogers — Eagle Advocate, Entertainer, and Facilitator
James Rogers has combined his musical talent and his love for eagles into a long-standing and valued relationship with the American Eagle Foundation.
In 1984, James read an article in The Tennessean about an Adopt an Eagle project—allowing country music stars to name eaglets released by the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA). James had recently written the State of Tennessee’s Bicentennial Song called Fly Eagle Fly, so he was very interested in finding out more about the Adopt an Eagle project.
A relationship was thus formed between James and the National Foundation to Protect America’s Eagles (NFPAE), and James became a board member. James, a regular performer at Dollywood Theme Park, arranged a meeting with Dollywood executives and NFPAE. In 1990, James introduced NFPAE to Ken Bell, Executive Vice President of The Dollywood Company, and Dave Anderson, Head of Attractions. As a result of that meeting, a long-term partnership was formed between NFPAE (later AEF) and Dollywood.
James also wrote and recorded Save the Eagle as a benefit song for the American Eagle Foundation. Collaborating stars included Lee Greenwood, Ricky Skaggs, Tanya Tucker, Deborah Allen, Deanna Carter, Ricky Lynn Gregg, Joy White, and The Oak Ridge Boys. James wrote and arranged When Challenger Flies for the American Eagle Foundation. James’s song When Challenger Flies remains a favorite on YouTube where it has amassed millions of views.
In 2016, James Rogers rejoined the Board of Directors of American Eagle Foundation where he continues to serve with distinction as Treasurer. By being the conduit to sharing the vision of the American Eagle Foundation with Dollywood, James changed the trajectory of NFPAE / AEF forever.