Some unfavorable winds had blown his way, and all of a sudden there he was with his typewriter and very little else. So, at the age of 36, he vowed to turn things around. He’d be a full-time, freelance outdoor writer.
Yeah, sure, said his colleagues. He had no outside income, no pension, no benefits and two teenage boys to rear.
But H. Lea Lawrence is a gutsy guy, and he knew what he wanted to do. He’d spent a lifetime in the outdoors, served in the Army, worked as a journalist, been PR director for a state wildlife agency and in between had sold some magazine articles.
Today, almost anyone who’s ever read an outdoor magazine knows his name. For he went on to write hundreds of magazine articles about his adventures, and now, at age 73, he hasn’t run down yet, still writing from his home in Franklin, Tenn. He’s also written seven books. Two of them, Prowling Papa’s Waters and A Hemingway Odyssey: Special Places in His Life, are known to literary scholars worldwide. He has a well-deserved reputation as an outstanding companion, as well, whether in a duck blind in Quebec or fishing for bluegills in Florida. His repertoire of anecdotes is legendary.
In earlier days he was mentor to such luminaries as Jim Carmichel, the writer and arms expert, and Bill Kovach, who became editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He became a close friend to several celebrated older writers, notably Nash Buckingham and Charlie Elliott, visiting and corresponding with them up to the times of their deaths.
Lea Lawrence was born on June 8, 1930, in Hammond, Ind., but grew up in small towns in the shadows of the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. At age 8 he learned to fish for trout in the fabled environs of Horace Kephart and the ancient Cherokees, in and around Sylva, N.C. A few years later, living in Morristown, Tenn., he would get up long before dawn in wintertime and hitchhike — with a shotgun! — to nearby reservoirs to stalk the mudflats for transient waterfowl. This was during World War II, when not many men were around to teach kids the arts of hunting and fishing. Lea was largely self-taught, as a result of voracious reading and time afield.
He wanted to be “a writer” from his earliest days and sometimes dabbled in poetry, tried his hand at short stories and practiced the now almost-defunct art of writing letters during his adolescence. Upon finishing high school he hired on at The Morristown Sun to sell ads and write an occasional news story. “The first thing I did was go out and buy a trench coat and a hat so I could look the part,” he says.
Then the Korean War came along. Lawrence served in the Army, attaining the rank of sergeant, and did a lot of hunting and fishing in the Pacific Northwest. He also spent long weeks in the Nevada desert, one of the few troops being exposed to the nuclear bomb test there. Back home again in 1953, he rejoined The Sun as a reporter and began writing an outdoor column titled “The Gamebag.”
At age 24, his continuing interest in the outdoors and journalism took him to East Tennessee State University, where he edited the campus newspaper, took a degree in biology with a separate major in English and graduated in 1957 with a 3.85 average out of a possible (or impossible, at the time) 4.0. Also in 1957, he married, and in 1958 he became a sportswriter and outdoors columnist for the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, afterwards spending six years as telegraph editor and outdoors columnist at the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press-Chronicle. His popularity as a columnist, outdoorsman and raconteur led to his selection as chief of public relations for the Tennessee Game and Fish Commission in 1963 when that position opened in Nashville. Besides working directly with the governor and co-editing the Tennessee Conservationist magazine — along with his other duties — Lawrence played a significant role in opposing construction of the notorious Tellico Dam, still considered by many as the Tennessee Valley Authority’s biggest boondoggle.
After leaving his post in an ugly political shake-up in 1966, he continued to freelance here and there while looking for a permanent connection. Meanwhile, he divorced and took custody of his two sons, David and Charlie, who were school age. They were living on wild fish and game and little else when Lawrence decided to take the full-time freelancer plunge.
In quick succession he sold at all the major outdoor magazines and many travel, general-interest and science magazines until he was published in more than 60 of them. He also wrote books, ranging from how-tos on photography to fly-fishing, bowhunting and small-game hunting. “I have fished, hunted and done research all across the United States and most of Canada, in Mexico, Central America, Cuba, six countries in Europe, in Zambia, Zimbabwe and seven trips to South Africa,” he says.
“I’ve never considered myself a trophy hunter. For me, the first gray squirrel I bagged as a kid was a trophy. Big animals came later: deer, elk, black bear and caribou in North America; red stag in England; and Cape buffalo, lion, eland, kudu and gemsbok to name five favorites among the African animals I’ve taken.”
Asked about some of his close calls, he mentions being stranded in a prolonged snowstorm in the Alaska wilderness with no heat, no cooking fuel, no radio and “only tent walls between me and two grizzlies prowling the area. The bush pilot couldn’t see to come in and pick us up for three days.”
But he counts among his most exciting times the hours spent with his boys, whom he was often able to include in his travels. “It was fun for all of us, and it gave them a leg up toward becoming the fine men and excellent outdoorsmen they are today,” he says.
“I consider that my greatest accomplishment in life.”
Lawrence is listed in Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities, is a longtime member of OWAA and was named an Honorary Tarheel by the governor of North Carolina.
David Dale Dickey lives in Knoxville, Tenn. During the 1960s-70s, he focused his writing on outdoors subjects and was a member of OWAA at that time.