Feb
09

Jack O’Connor, His Legacy, and the Wild Sheep of Today

A couple weeks back, we found ourselves in Reno, Nevada. A senior family member had passed on after a long illness, and Diane needed to help her brother get a few Veterans Affairs and other details managed. You gotta love a happy coincidence. Somehow, that just happened to be the same week that the North American Wild Sheep Foundation Convention was held in the Reno-Sparks Convention Center. It also just happened that my South African buddies, Richard and Ruth Lemmer, had their Safari Afrika booth there. And – Lo and Behold! – Less than 30 booths away were folks from the Lewiston, Idaho, Jack O’Connor Hunting Heritage & Education Center – a critical part of protecting and sharing an important writer’s legacy.

Born in Arizona in 1902, O’Connor grew up in the Sonora Desert country, nuts about the outdoors and wildlife – and desert bighorn sheep. After stints in the Navy, and several southern universities, he settled into teaching English. In 1934, he joined the University of Arizona as its first professor of journalism.

He wrote widely and well about wildlife, natural history and hunting, and sold a number of fictional short stories. His work was published in virtually every magazine of the time, from Redbook and the 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 left academia in 1945 and moved to Lewiston in ‘48.

Honored as the “Dean of Outdoor Writers,” Jack O’Connor was a cornerstone of Outdoor Life, the most popular sportsman’s read during his long tenure. With humor and personal anecdotes, he could help the average guy 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 decades of monthly columns, he wrote dozens of books and publications about experiences with firearms, hunting and natural history. Much of it was about his beloved wild sheep.

Huge numbers of us learned to read with his monthly columns and books – with flashlights under the covers – after we’d been put to bed and told to sleep. (I have long thought we were learning to write, too, at the same time we were messing up our young eyes.) Jack O’Connor changed the way we thought about firearms, hunting and wildlife and the ethics of dealing with all of them. He retired from Outdoor Life in 1972, and on to his Happy Hunting Ground in 1978.

At the Wild Sheep Show, I helped Richard and Ruth move a few souvenirs and invite a few folks to an adventure of a lifetime in South Africa. Somewhere in those days, I also found time with volunteers and a board member or two from the O’Connor Center.

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 support – and keep. It is also a museum, housing a sizeable part of his wildlife and big game collection, and several favorite firearms. Youngsters are always a focus of education efforts; it is now sponsoring a Youth Hunter Education Challenge Program for youngsters 11- 18 in eight events (check it out at www.jack-oconnor.org.) My conversations with folks in the booth centered on our proposed Washington Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, getting kids into outdoor adventures, and then recording – writing – them. We discussed several ideas about getting kids excited about writing up their own great adventures. Can it be done these days? What will it take?  Standby…

We also enjoyed some “supposings” and “wonderings” about how O’Connor might have reacted to the incredible diversity of booths, perspectives and possibilities at the convention. In the hall were many hundreds of booths and thousands upon thousands of visitors. Among the booths were several groups or businesses promoting extreme long range shooting (taking animals from more than 1,000 yards, for example). Scattered across the acres of booths were somewhere around 1,000 mounted wild sheep – maybe a couple dozen different species. Wander enough and you could find anything from Mexican desert bighorns to European mouflon to any of the various subspecies of the giant argali of Mongolia, Central Asia and the Himalayas. O’Connor preached careful long stalks and good shooting from reasonable distances – he was a wild sheep nut of the first order. He was a crusty about these things, and did not suffer fools gladly. Those of us who knew him personally, or from his writing, could only imagine his reaction to the preaching of ultra-long range shots and the stunning number and variety of sheep on display.

You probably owe it to yourself and the hunters and sportsmen who come after you to appreciate Jack O’Connor and his work. Check out the Jack O’Connor Center at www.jack-oconnor.org/ (208-743-5043). Then, take a drive to the Center at Hell’s Gate State Park in Lewiston.

How will we lay out a sustainable outdoor future without understanding how we got here?

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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