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A Christmas card from Joe Sportsman


For over 30 years I received a simple Christmas card this time of year that was signed by Joe Sportsman. I have never found a Joe Sportsman in any phone book, and I eventually figured out it was an alias. Who was it? The card carried postmarks from all over Southern California, and some years from far-flung places across the county.

Some years there were one-sentence greetings: “Thanks for all you do for fishermen and hunters.” “We liked the story on brown trout at Slide Lake.” “When are you writing a book?”

The handwriting was the same each year, albeit a bit shakier the last few years it came.

I have a few of good friends who would do such things, and I accused all of them of sending me the Joe Sportsman card at one time or another over the years. They all feigned ignorance, all with convincing expressions and words that made me believe they were not the one sending me the Joe Sportsmen cards. One of them was obviously a darn good story-teller.

Many of my newspaper column readers don’t know that I write, edit, and publish a small newsletter for Southern California bird hunters. Even those who do, don’t know the story of how I came to do the publication.

It was 21 years ago this past summer that my long-time friend, mentor, and high school English teacher Bobby Rowell came out of his home office with a double arm-load of his guzzler maps, mailing lists, handwritten notes, mimeographed copies of his little newsletter called Upland Birds, and dumped it all in my lap.

“You do it,” he said. With those words, Bobby Rowell set in motion a two decade effort to help bird hunters find more and better places to hunt. My subscribers can thank him for Western Birds, the name of my publication. I’m not sure I do.

Bobby passed away in August, 2016, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease that first took his mobility, finally his speech, but never his sharp mind. Rowell had been publishing guzzler maps and his Western Birds-like newsletter for several years and announced he was going to quit doing it these 20-odd years ago. I was one of his subscribers, gobbling up his maps and the scouting information in the newsletter. The fact that they were folksy and fun to read just made them better.

Upland Birds didn’t fit into his retirement plans. He had complained to me a number of times that year that he liked doing all the scouting and finding guzzlers, but the whole rigmarole of typing mailing lists, pasting together the newsletter, and trying to promote the thing was just too much work. He was giving it all up. I pleaded with him: No one was doing this. Bird hunters need you.

I even came up with a proposal. Twenty years ago was about the time that computers were getting good. People were starting to take digital photos, and scanning old slides, photos, and maps could be done at photo shops all over the region. I told Bobby that I would do the office work — the layout, paste-up, digitize the photos and maps, keep the database on the computer — but he would do the scouting and give me his written reports. I’d do the rest. Did a split in the income sound fair?

He agreed. I said I would do a mock-up our new joint venture/newsletter.

So there I was those 21 years ago sitting on the couch at his house with a mock-up of Western Birds.

“That looks good,” he said and got up, went into his office, and came back with a primer to a big part of my next 21 years in his arms.

At his memorial service last year, there were two of my 1972 classmates from Fontana High School who spoke at his service. Wonderful writers and speakers, they captured his Arkansas speech patterns and his wry sense of humor. But they both talked about how Bobby had used them to advance the cause of education, of writing, of telling good stories, or helping other people. They also told of wonderful practical jokes. They made everyone there smile and laugh. They made me think.

Those 21 years ago, I thought the newsletter was a golden goose and that Bobby was giving me something extremely valuable.

Valuable to me.

So I kept doing it. Every time we’d see each other, Bobby would tell me how much he liked the newsletter. I’d lament about how much work it was for very little return. He would ask if I had flyers in this store or that store, or if I’d sent out a promotion to this mailing list or some other one. He always sounded like he believed it could make money if I just found the right lists. But Bobby was no dummy. I should have known he had tried everything before “gifting” the newsletter to me, obviously not his brightest student. He was thinking about bird hunters who could use the information published in a good bird hunting newsletter.

He was thinking about Joe Sportsman, all of the hunters and fishermen who have read my fishing reports and outdoor stories over the years. He was thinking about you.

I had never figured all this out until his services when I heard the stories from his other students, his more intelligent students. I sat there laughing and crying and laughing.

I miss my old friend — and I miss getting his Joe Sportsman cards each Christmas.


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