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Bill McRae, “It was like meeting my hero”

‘Bill and Mary McRae view their lives as blessed, appreciating life for what it offers. That philosophy has prompted Bill to take young “punk” writers and photographers under his wing, mentoring them in all his hard-earned wisdom of life and the business. It’s his way of paying back.’

By Tim Christie

As a boy, I would sneak issues of Sports Afield and Outdoor Life from Dad’s stash of reading material into my bedroom at night. Vivid words and spectacular photos never failed to prompt dreams of hunting in high mountain basins where elk, sheep and mule deer roamed free.

One day, I got to meet one of the people who wrote the articles and took the photos that seemed too good to be true. Crossing paths with Bill McRae was a life-defining moment. It was like meeting my hero … but it got better. McRae befriended me, and over three decades he has mentored and counseled me in the business of writing and photography. I’m not alone. Dozens of people make that claim. His talents as a writer and photographer easily qualified him for OWAA membership in 1970, but it is his willingness to help others that makes Bill McRae an outdoor communication industry legend.

Bill’s beginnings sound like an Abe Lincoln storyline. He came into the world kicking and screaming, aided by a doctor who’d driven his car up to the windows of the McRae log cabin. Heated by wood, illuminated by kerosene lantern, the cabin was poorly lit, prompting the doctor to use his car lights so he could see. Born into a family of Wisconsin dairy farmers during the Great Depression, McRae learned early the value of hard work. As he puts it, “I learned that anything you wanted in life meant you had to work for it. And I’ve worked for everything that I’ve achieved in life, yet I’ve also been very blessed.”

Like many people, McRae’s journey into writing and photography wasn’t planned. He left Wisconsin within days of graduating from high school, taking an ironworker job in North Dakota. Inspired by his strong religious upbringing, he also had ambitions of being a pastor. He traveled throughout the West, finally settling in the small town of Fairfield, Mont., on the Rocky Mountain Front. One of the many blessings in his life was meeting and marrying Mary, his wife of 51 years. In Fairfield, he accepted a church pastor’s job. It was a small church, which meant that he had to continue his work as an ironworker to feed his growing family of four children: three boys and a girl.

In Fairfield, McRae began his photography career. With a used 35-mm camera, he took some elk photos on a game refuge near his home. Not shy about taking risks, he sent some to Outdoor Life magazine. They bought two photos, using both of them with articles by the legendary Jack O’Connor. Inspired, McRae sent Bill Rae, editor of Outdoor Life, an article titled, “Elk on the Roof of America” (the Continental Divide). Rae returned the article with a two-page letter counseling McRae to make the article at least 3,500 words with several changes. McRae revised the article to 5,000 words and resubmitted it. It sold.

Bill McRae thus began his journey in outdoor writing, “thinking it would be easy,” due to his early success. Laughing, he adds, “I couldn’t have been more wrong.”

McRae stands alone as the foremost writer and expert on sport optics in the industry. Having written hundreds of articles on the subject, he’s served as a consultant to Bushnell Corporation for 20 years, lectured to countless audiences (including at OWAA conferences) and even taught sales representatives of binocular and scope manufacturers. “Obviously they need to know something about optics to sell them,” he says dryly. “What’s amazing is how few of them know anything about what it is they are selling.”

Freely acknowledging that others have “helped me achieve whatever success I’ve had,” McRae is one of the givers in an industry known for zealously protecting secrets. “I was blessed with people sharing with me, and I couldn’t live my life not helping others. I just don’t understand people who view this business as cutthroat and constantly protect their turf,” he says.

When in McRae’s presence, one is easily awed by both the depth and breadth of his knowledge on so many subjects. Hiking up a mountain trail one morning under a hot August sun, he spoke lines of Robert Service’s poetry that always seemed to fit both the moment and the mood. Once, sitting around a campfire, he explained theories of how the stars were formed in terms my grandson could understand.

“I’ve been blessed with a curious mind,” he says. I suspect that when Bill’s mind prompts a question, finding the answer requires more study than most college students can imagine. While he’s received help from others, Bill is largely self-taught. As he puts it, “I didn’t go to college, and there is part of me that regrets that. Like the broadcaster Peter Jennings (also self-taught), who recently died, used to say, ‘I’ve never stopped trying to make up for it.'”

McRae, reflecting on his life and career has several notable thoughts. “How quickly you go from young punk to old fart,” describes the speed at which one’s life passes. “You get what you pay for and nothing is free,” is Bill’s philosophy on working. “You have to believe what you have to say is worthwhile and meaningful — if you don’t, don’t write about it,” is the basis of everything he writes. And he wishes that were true for other writers and magazine publishers, as well. “‘Don’t take yourself too seriously’ is a mantra not easily understood by some people,” says Bill.

Triumphs and tragedies characterize Bill’s life. Reaching the zenith of professional accomplishment, he was awarded the 2003 Zeiss Lifetime Achievement award for unparalleled contributions for writing. He received the OWAA Excellence in Craft award in 1985. Sadly, his family has suffered the loss of a son and daughter, both devastating personal tragedies.

With triumph and tragedy alike, Bill and Mary McRae view their lives as blessed, appreciating life for what it offers. That philosophy has prompted Bill to take young “punk” writers and photographers under his wing, mentoring them in all his hard-earned wisdom of life and the business. It’s his way of paying back, ensuring that this career path he loves so deeply continues in the traditions he has set. His shoes are large, the path steep and laborious — but it’s a journey he’s led for many. And for that, we should be thankful. I know I am.

An OWAA member since 1984, Tim Christie is a still photographer/writer whose work has been featured in publications such as Field & Stream and Outdoor Life. Christie has served OWAA’s board and twice was elected Outstanding Board Member. He lives in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

© Outdoor Writers Association of America