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Jack Samson: An OWAA Living Legend

By John R. Catsis

In preparing to write this article about my friend, Jack Samson, I have asked myself “how do you write about a legend?” The answer came in part after looking up the definition of “legend.” The dictionary says a legend is a “person who achieves legendary fame.” Well, that’s Samson all right. Consider his famous achievements: war correspondent, member of the Flying Tigers, Neiman Fellow, prolific book author, editor of Field & Stream, mentor, innovator of salt water fishing techniques, fly-fishing record holder, international conservationist, winner of numerous awards for writing and conservation, including the 2001 OWAA Excellence in Craft Award, and good friend to many. If that isn’t a legend, no one is.

Let’s take a closer look at his remarkable life, which began on March 19, 1922, in Providence, RI. As a youngster, young Jack (legally John) loved to play outside, but the ocean air and vegetation of New England were not kind to him. The child came down with severe asthma, which often forced him to his bed for up to two weeks at a time. Doctors advised a change of climate, warning that the youngster’s health was seriously at risk. So, in 1930, mother and two younger siblings drove to New Mexico and settled in a rented ranch house in the village of Tesuque, just north of Santa Fe.

The dry climate was just what young Samson needed. He became stronger and overcame his asthma. Soon, he began hunting jackrabbits and cottontails with a slingshot near his home. Later, with his strength restored and manhood on the horizon, Samson was sent back east to continue his education at the Greenbrier Military Academy, now closed, in Lewisburg, WV.

Shortly after World War II broke out, Samson joined what was then called the Army Air Corps. He became a navigator on B-24 Liberator bombers, flying 52 combat missions over China, where his father once served as U.S. ambassador. Young Samson’s boss at the time was none other than another legend, Major General Claire Chennault of the 14th Air Force, better known as the Flying Tigers. The two established a close relationship, initiated in part by their mutual love of fishing.

When the war ended, Samson decided to follow in the footsteps of his father, whose other career had been as a journalist. Samson enrolled in the University of New Mexico, along with many other former GI’s from World War II. There, while a senior, he sold his first article to Field & Stream, a magazine he would later head as editor. Samson fondly remembers that first story, which he titled “Tire Tube Ducks.” It described a technique he used during the late waterfowl season on the Rio Grande River; namely floating on a large tire tube with a shotgun in his lap. He got $75 for the story. In 1949 “that was a lot of money at that time,” he recalled.

With journalism degree in hand, Samson was hired by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish as its very first public relations officer. Heading the department at that time was Elliot S. Barker, a man Samson considered ahead of his time, and another legend in his own right. (Legends have a way of finding each other, it seems.) “While Barker was of the old-school, he also saw the future of PR,” Samson said. “As my mentor he instilled in me that management and conservation of wildlife resources would be important in the future of all wildlife agencies.” Samson would remember this lesson well.

His loyalty to and admiration of Barker was not unusual for Samson. Even after he moved on, he kept in touch, writing Barker regularly until Barker’s death at the age of 101. This is one of the qualities that makes Samson special. When he identifies a person of talent and of honor, he is their friend for life.

He also maintains a great deal of respect for the work wildlife agencies do today. While he believes they are more capable than ever before, he points out that they are faced with serious problems. “Wildlife specialists who hold degrees in all phases of game management seldom are held in as high esteem as some emotionally oriented civilian at a game commission meeting,” he said recently.

During his tenure in Santa Fe for the Department of Game and Fish, Samson was assigned the task of handling promotion for a scrawny little bear that was found orphaned following a fire in southern New Mexico. He (the bear) was to become Smokey the Bear, who magically learned English and urged everyone to help prevent forest fires. As Samson is quick to recall, “that was the meanest bear I’d ever seen. He never appreciated the care that had been provided him.”

After a couple of years in Santa Fe, Samson agreed to join his old boss, Claire Chennault, in China. Chennault had started a private airline and needed some public relations help. Removed from the shackles of military discipline, Samson got to know Chennault intimately, mostly when the two would go on fishing trips together. Nearly 40 years later Samson would write Chennault’s definitive biography.

When the Korean War broke out, Samson decided he needed more action, so he signed on as a correspondent for United Press (UP) (before it became United Press International). His decision to join UP may not have been entirely voluntary. “I was coaxed into the job after consuming far too many drinks at the Tokyo Press Club. The next thing I remember was waking up, dressed in GI clothes and flying over Seoul with a hangover and a big pay cut.”

Despite the hijacking incident, wire service work suited him, and after covering the prisoner exchange in Korea, Samson returned to New Mexico, joining another wire service; the Associated Press (AP). From his Albuquerque location he got back into writing about the outdoors in a regular column distributed statewide by the AP. This, plus other reporting, earned him a coveted Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University in 1960. The one-year fellowship is given annually to two-dozen mid-career journalists to pursue additional studies.

When these studies were completed, Samson moved from the ivy-covered walls of Cambridge, MA, to the canyons of New York, where he worked on several outdoor magazines. In 1970 he was offered the post of managing editor of Field & Stream, and two years later was made editor-in-chief, a post he would hold for the next 13 years.

During that time, Samson traveled the world, wrote an astonishing 16 books, took the magazine from a circulation of 1,600,000 to 2,200,000, and started regional sections within Field & Stream, a concept we now take for granted. But most important, Samson discovered, hired, and nurtured a staff of writers whose names have been legends in the world of outdoor writing: Bob Brister, Gene Hill, Pat McManus, Steve Netherby, George Reiger, Glen Sapir, Ken Schultz, and Bill Tarrant.

While in New York, Samson also served on the board of directors of the Campfire Club of America, the African Safari Club, the Outdoor Writers Association of America (a responsibility he repeated five years ago), and became a representative of the International Game Fish Association.

In 1985 Samson retired from Field & Stream, and returned to Santa Fe with his artist wife, Victoria. There, they remodeled a modest home into a showplace, with an expansive back yard filled with the happy sounds of three energetic dogs.

When home, Samson is usually found at his computer on any given morning, rapidly typing away with his two index fingers. Jake, the lab, would often lie by his side. His office is in the den, a large room that, except for a few photos and a lot of books, would not otherwise reveal his love of the outdoors. There are no mounted fish or trophy heads.

But his joy of the hunt, whether for game animals or game fish, continues without pause. Often, he will fly to Central America or Australia to do some serious offshore fishing. Just recently he returned from Honduras, where he conducted research on permit fishing, which will become his 23rd book. He might even agree to take a neophyte, like this writer, on a fly-fishing journey to the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico, where trout are small at 20 inches. I remember the time we went several years ago. I never did catch anything, while Samson was nearby, quietly catching fish after fish. At the end of the day, I asked how he liked the fishing, fully expecting him to be excited about the quantity he’d caught and released. (I think they were more than 30.) “Oh, I’d have done a lot better,” he said with a twinkle, “If I didn’t have to stop to help you all the time.”

I’m pleased to say we’ve also been on hunts together, for antelope, elk, deer, and blue grouse. He enjoys them all, and if we didn’t see a thing, as happened on the elk hunt, it was still a great experience. He has more stories to tell about hunting and fishing, and outdoors people, than most people dream of. Usually, he talks about people, because he has a love of people.

The days of New York and the east coast in general are behind him. Having turned 80 this year, Samson says he is a westerner, and does not intend to cross the Mississippi River ever again, if he can help it. One of the last times was a family reunion in Rhode Island, organized by his sister, and the OWAA conference held in Greensboro, NC.

During the past 17 years, Samson has served as fly-fishing editor for Marlin Magazine, salt water editor of Flyrod & Reel, and salt water editor of Fly fishing & Tying Journal, as well as a special correspondent for Saltwater Fly Fishing.

He’s even developed a lure named “Samson’s Fighting Crab,” which is now featured in the Orvis catalog.

Yes, he knows what he is writing about. Samson holds a fly rod world record for roosterfish and is the first fly-fisherman in the world to catch Atlantic and Pacific sailfish and all five species of marlin on a fly. In 1989 he won the International Billfish Fly Tournament in Costa Rica. In 1996 he was given the annual conservation award of the International Game Fish Association for a story he wrote on the pollution of Florida Bay. At about the same time he launched a campaign to halt long line fishing that killed thousands of billfish. Mexico and Honduras agreed to stop the practice. In 1999 the University of New Mexico Alumni Association presented him with the James F. Zimmerman Award, the school’s highest honor, “in recognition of his outstanding career as a journalist, author and editor.”

In researching this article, I went to the Internet and found over 350 citations on 37 pages referencing Samson Samson, the outdoorsman! What these listings reminded me of was that this man is a prolific writer. Besides various groundbreaking books on fly-fishing, Samson has written biographies, and books on training falcons for hunting (yes, he’s done that, too — twice!), plus other how-to books dealing with hunting and fishing. He’s even written a book called Successful Outdoor Writing. The book I remember best is The Pond, which describes the life cycle of a pond through the four seasons. It could have been any pond, but this particular one was located in rural Westchester County, NY, where Samson and Victoria would escape the canyons of New York City on weekends.

Life has been good to this good man. He is blessed with a wife, three children, three grandchildren and one great granddaughter. He is also blessed with lifelong friends, and the knowledge that he has helped others achieve success in journalism. If these were the only reasons, he’d still be a legend.

Book editor, publisher and former broadcast journalism professor and lecturer John Catsis of Chandler, AZ, is dean of instruction for and is the author of the first North American textbook on sports broadcasting. Catsis specializes in photography, hunting, recreational vehicles, build-it-yourself and business articles.

© Outdoor Writers Association of America