Sep
09

Jack O’Connor Lives On

What started all this was a thirty-something homey asking about the logo on my shirt. I was at one of the few safe and open sight-in spots in the foothills, testing some loads for the .270 Edward, last of the Hucklings, would use on our upcoming Wyoming Safari. The short-sleeved shirt was from the Jack O’Connor Hunting Heritage & Education Center in Lewiston. “So,” Homey said, “sounds familiar. But who’s Jack O’Connor?”

“Well,” I replied, “for starters, the .270 was his favorite caliber. And here is why you should care…” I gave him a thumbnail sketch of the man so many millions of us idolized and emulated, and he went on his way, nodding. Here is more on O’Connor’s life and very important heritage. As hunting seasons approach, and National Hunting and Fishing Day nears, there is no better time to bring it back to mind.

Born in Arizona in 1902, O’Connor grew up in the Sonora Desert country, nuts about the outdoors and wildlife. After stints in the Navy, Tempe Normal (now Arizona State), the University of Arizona, University of Arkansas and the University of Missouri, he settled into teaching English. In 1934, he joined the University of Arizona and was the first professor of journalism in what is now a renowned School of Journalism.

He wrote widely and well about wildlife, natural history and hunting, and sold a fair number of fictional short stories. His work was published in virtually every magazine of the time, from Redbook and Saturday Evening Post to Sports Afield, Field and Stream and Outdoor Life. In 1939, he became a regular columnist and editor for Outdoor Life. He finally left academia in 1945, moving to Lewiston, Idaho three years later.

Known as the “Dean of Outdoor Writers,” Jack O’Connor was a cornerstone of Outdoor Life – the most popular sportsman’s read during his tenure. With humor and personal anecdotes, he could help the average Joe master most any technical idea. He could pack more information, entertainment and excitement into one sentence than any writer I’ve ever read. In addition to monthly columns for nearly four decades, he wrote a couple dozen books and publications about experiences and observations with firearms, hunting and natural history across the planet. In my view, his body of writing is his greatest legacy.

Uncounted numbers of us learned to read with his monthly column and books – flashlight in hand after we’d been put to bed and told to sleep. Jack O’Connor changed the way generations of us thought about firearms, hunting and wildlife and the ethics of dealing with all of them. He retired from Outdoor Life in 1972. He moved on to his own Happy Hunting Ground in 1978.

In my long-held view, his writings ought to be read by every sportsman of every stripe, but know that the man was a consummate hunter. One of my favorite stories about O’Connor is probably proof enough. In the mid-1970s, John Madson (an editor at Outdoor Life) and his teenage son Chris popped in on O’Connor after a few days of chasing chukars above the Snake River. Neither of them had ever been in Jack’s home, and hoped to hang out with the legend. Once the grumpy old hunter warmed up to them, he walked them through his extensive collection of big game trophies, housed in a couple locations on his place. They stood before trophies from around the world, as the master story teller regaled them with tale after tale about this place and that and this animal or the other. Madson wrote of the experience with reverence and gratitude for the hours millions of us would have given anything to have with O’Connor. At the very end of the tour, having talked about dozens and dozens of trophies and places and experiences, the Dean of Outdoor Writers turned to the son with, “Tell me, Chris, have you ever seen anything like this before?” When the boy said he sure hadn’t, O’Connor said “What do you think of it?” The kid slowly looked around, thought for a moment and said, “Well, sir, you don’t fish much, do you?”

Of that wildlife and big game collection, some 65 pieces are housed at the Jack O’Connor Hunting Heritage and Education Center at Hell’s Gate State Park in Lewiston. A number are held by family and friends and a few are in closed collections.

The Center is focused on Jack’s legacy, with outdoor education and activities to help ensure that our grandchildren’s children still have an outdoor legacy to enjoy, support, and keep. The Center houses that sizeable part of his wildlife and game collection, along with several favorite firearms. Youngsters are always a focus of education efforts, which often include school programs and a Youth Hunter Education Challenge Program. There are educational opportunities for all ages

You owe it to yourself and the hunters and sportsmen who come after you to make sure your descendants know and appreciate Jack O’Connor and his work. Check out the Center at www.jack-oconnor.org. Then, take a drive to it, in Hell’s Gate State Park in Lewiston.

Jack O’Connor lives on. He must.

After all, how will we create a sustainable outdoor future without first understanding how we got here?

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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