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Don G. Cullimore, Devoted Conservationist Improved OWAA

First full-time executive director Don G. Cullimore expands member services, increases membership, and stabilizes the association’s financial base.

By Lee M. Cullimore and Don B. Cullimore

Writing about your father as a “legend” within OWAA can be difficult. Right up front, I’ll admit to being biased, but will hope that any personal prejudices remain in the background.

Dad’s career as a writer and editor began in 1933…with a white lie! He had applied for a job as a reporter on a small daily newspaper in central Missouri. As he remembered it: “We were in the Depression. I was broke, Marie (his wife, our mother) was pregnant, and I needed a job. I’d studied journalism in college, so I applied for the reporter slot. What I didn’t count on was the need to also be a photographer. In those days, on a small newspaper you wrote the story, took the photographs, developed the film, made prints and then etched the plate. I’d never handled a camera, much less seen the inside of a darkroom!”

Asked by the managing editor if he could use a camera, Dad swallowed hard, said yes, then quickly found a college chum, who was a working photographer, to teach him. That crash course in photography and darkroom practice stayed with Dad for the rest of his life. At his death, at age 82, my brother and I dismantled a working photo lab in his home.

Another example of how an early experience could forge skills that would last a lifetime is Dad’s story about moonshiners. This happened in the late 1920s, during Prohibition. He was working as a quartermaster for an Army Corps of Engineers crew on the Missouri River. They were cutting willows and weaving mats for stream-bank control. Dad was responsible for purchasing all the supplies for the crew, including their food.

“I was called to the chief engineer’s office and told that in three days they were going to cut willows from an island a couple of miles downstream. It happened that this particular island was where the local bootleggers had set up their stills to avoid detection. Somehow or other, I was told, I had to let them know we were coming. My boss feared that riled moonshiners might shoot at our men, or vent their anger by vandalizing our equipment.”

The next day Dad took a skiff and motored to a nearby village on the pretext of buying groceries. While in the store he made it a point to talk about where they would be cutting willows in a couple of days. “You know,” he said later, “when we got to that island there wasn’t a sign of a still anywhere, and mysteriously, we found ourselves blessed with a plentiful supply of free whisky as long as we were in the area.” Dad had learned the value of good public relations.

His newspaper career took off in 1935 when Dad went to work as city editor for the Wichita (Kansas) Eagle. Then in 1942 he was hired as the European Theater war editor for the St. Louis Post Dispatch. It was while working for the latter that — after the end of the Second World War — he began writing feature stories about the outdoors for the newspaper and selling outdoor articles to numerous national publications. Dad was not what many term a “hook and bullet” writer. He always sought to present the outdoor experience within the larger social and natural historical context of the subject about which he was writing. These stories, many of which were sold to the major outdoor magazines and other publications such as Ford Times and Boy’s Life, were the basis for his joining OWAA in 1951.

During this same period he also researched and wrote a series of articles for the Post Dispatch that documented the social and natural history of the Irish Wilderness, an area of beautiful forest and clear streams in the Ozarks whose unique story was then unknown among historians and others. His long-time friend Dan Saults worked alongside Dad in this venture; Saults published articles about the Irish Wilderness in the Missouri Conservationist and helped secure the area’s designation as a National Forest Wilderness, saving it from destructive mining and logging. Dad’s work stands today as the definitive history of the Irish Wilderness.

At the same time, Dad was also involved in local and regional conservation issues, using his writing and extensive contacts to promote public awareness and interest. He ultimately became involved in the fight to save the Current and Jacks Fork rivers from inundation, challenging the Army Corps of Engineers and heavily financed local developers in a successful effort to overcome proposed dams. In today’s parlance, Dad became a highly skilled “net worker” (a term he’d never have used), developing relationships that — although no one knew it at the time — would benefit OWAA in the future.

In 1953 Johnson Outboard Motors hired Dad as their first-ever public relations director, he then faced the challenge of creating an administrative office where none had existed previously. This was a period of a tremendous growth of interest in outdoor recreation, and fishing and boating were booming in popularity. Dad’s responsibilities at Johnson put him in contact with media on a nation-wide basis, and also led to his involvement with industry and public policy leaders in this expanding field.

Four years later, Dad left Johnson Outboards and moved to Florida, where it was hoped the warm climate would help Marie recover from serious heart problems. (She was unable to continue living in northern Illinois where Johnson Outboard’s headquarters was located.) He worked there as public relations director for Gator Trailers. After Marie’s death in 1958, Dad left the corporate world and went on the road as a full-time free-lance writer and editor, roaming the country in a pickup camper with his flop-eared beagle, Toby.

His involvement in OWAA had continued throughout the ’50s and early ’60’s. He was active on committees and was eventually elected a member of the Board of Directors. At times, he was also a member of AGLOW and the FOWA. During his travels around the country, both as a representative of outdoor industry and later as a free-lancer, he made it a practice to visit fellow OWAA members whenever he had a chance. My observation is that he had a knack for getting to know people, and for helping them to know him. Many times I was with him when he met someone new, and within a few minutes the two of them would discover they had a mutual acquaintance somewhere in the world. It was uncanny how often this happened, but it was indicative of Dad’s far-reaching contacts.

Without going into the specifics of the background leading up to events that occurred at OWAA’s annual membership meeting in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1963 (read Fifty Years of O.W.A.A. — A Historical Summary…), suffice it to say that the association had problems and needed someone who could sort them out. Prior to the meeting it had been decided that a full-time executive director should be hired, but was that possible?

Perhaps Grits Gresham stated the situation best in the May 1972, issue of Outdoors Unlimited. Recalling the events of the Erie meeting, Grits, who was association president then, wrote: “We thrashed the bushes seeking executive director prospects, and each time the shaking ended there stood Don Cullimore. So we called him in at the Erie convention and made him the worst proposition you ever heard — “Don, here’s the scoop. OWAA has no money, quite a few debts, and a lot of problems, and we’d like for you to come in and take care of these things. We can’t pay you enough to live on, but if you do a good job maybe someday we can.”

Anybody in his right mind would have laughed at such a deal as he walked out of the room, so Don took it!

Dad’s 30-plus years experience as a writer and editor, public relations practitioner and administrator were tools that he brought to OWAA when he accepted the job. But more than that, he was enthusiastic about solving the challenges facing the association, and he knew he’d have the help of the membership in doing so. Pappy, as he was called by many in OWAA, was happy!

For the next nine years Dad served OWAA as its first full-time executive director. By all accounts, he was successful in guiding the association to a position of expanded membership, with an increased and stable financial base. Along the way the members gained increased and improved services, and under his direction the organization established long-term objectives and programs that are used today to serve the diversified needs of its membership. But of more importance to Dad was that OWAA and its members were recognized by industry and media leaders as legitimate, professional communicators. At the time of his retirement, Dad was extremely gratified that OWAA had progressed to the point where a man with Ed Hanson’s credentials would consider becoming the next executive director. He greatly admired Ed and in the years that followed, Dad was always telling me how proud he was of Ed’s accomplishments.

If he were here to read this, Dad would tell you that he hadn’t worked alone in his efforts to improve OWAA. He had tremendous faith in, and appreciation for, the members themselves and the work they did on committees, through their service on the Board of Directors, and individually within their communities and their contacts with industry and the media. His time as executive director provided him with the big picture that all of his prior experiences had enabled him to see as the future of OWAA.

During his term as executive director, Dad gave up his writing. I once asked him why he didn’t keep his hand in, because I knew that writing was his real interest in life. “Because,” he said, “It would appear to the membership that I was competing with them.” After retiring from OWAA, he returned to free-lance writing and public relations in the outdoor field.

At the time of his retirement in 1972, Dad was presented the Ham Brown Award “for devoted past service to the organization over a period of continuous years.” But his service to OWAA didn’t end then. He stayed involved as a source of information and background whenever the organization felt his thoughts were wanted. Then, in 1976, he was asked to write the first published history of OWAA. My brother, Don, writing in the February 1990, issue of Outdoors Unlimited, recalled that episode in Dad’s life. “I remember visiting Dad on several occasions…and finding him furiously pounding away on his old Underwood…with OWAA documents, newspaper clippings, letters and assorted other research papers piled deep about him like a paper blanket…He was honored that the Board of Directors…had asked him to undertake (the project).”

Dad’s work resulted in the 1977 publication of Fifty Years of O.W.A.A. — A Historical Summary of the Outdoor Writer’s Association of America. He had been actively involved with the association for twenty-six of those years and continued as a member until he died.

On a cold, gray winter morning after Dad’s death, Christmas Day, 1989, my brother and I scattered his ashes into the swift water of the Current River. As they drifted away we each remembered a man who was already a legend to us. Today, 25 years after his last official act for OWAA, we’re honored that the association has extended this recognition to our father.

Lee “Duke” Cullimore and Don “Rocky” Cullimore are former members of OWAA. Lee retired as executive director of the Water Ski Association of America in 1994, and is currently working on book and free-lance magazine projects. He and his wife, Marcia, live on an 85-acre patch of the Ozarks in Versailles, MO, where they do some tree farming. Don is director of public relations and publications for Central Methodist College in Fayette, MO.

© Outdoor Writers Association of America