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Norm Strung, ‘I’ve always lived life on my terms’

By Joel M. Vance

He lived up Cottonwood Canyon, which was good enough until the post office made him take a number. Cottonwood Creek flowed just behind the house, and it was full of brook trout. “We eat ’em,” Norm Strung said.

Once he shot a bear, and it was almost like the old Groucho Marx joke: “I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.” Norm was getting a cup of coffee one morning during bear season in Montana, and he saw the bear feasting on berries off a tree in his yard. “I got him right between the pickup and the car,” he said with satisfaction.

Norm Strung died far too young, at 49, a victim of that awful disease cancer. He was not just a friend but also a role model for me. Norm and his wife Sil knew how to live. Their home was a way station for outdoor writers, kids and people who liked to party.

But Strung was far more than a good-time Charley. He was a strong president for OWAA and the toughest board chairman I’ve been around. “I’ll let anyone have his say,” he’d tell the board. “But I don’t want to hear speeches, and I don’t want you repeating someone else’s point. Let’s move it along.”

Move it he did. Board meetings went smoothly, and things got done. It was the same way in the outdoors. Strung got things done. He was no dilettante; he was practical. His fishing gear was not the fancy stuff of legend – it was utilitarian. In the bird field he looked like a farmer taking a day off from the plow to kill a couple of quail.

But he always got the job done. He outfished and outshot me every time. Once he stayed with us in Missouri for a couple of days, and I took him to a muskie lake in North Missouri. Muskie anglers often go years between landing a legal muskie. Strung caught two 15-pounders in about as many hours. He released them.

On that same trip he introduced me to Rusty Nails, which go down far more smoothly than their name implies but earn their prickly reputation the next morning.

Strung was an unlikely outdoor legend. He grew up in Brooklyn and never quite lost his “Noo Yawk” accent. Norm decided that he wanted an outdoor life and migrated to Montana when he was 17. He ultimately entered Montana State University (MSU) at Bozeman, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English, then did graduate work both at MSU and the University of Montana – in literary criticism. Not your average education for an outdoor communicator.

But Strung began to learn about the outdoors in the heart of it, by doing it. He and Sil were married in 1963 and built their cabin up Cottonwood Canyon on the little creek of the same name. I once asked Norm where he hunted elk. “Right up there,” he said, pointing to the steep hill across Cottonwood Creek.

He took to guiding on the Madison and Gallatin and other area rivers and soaked up outdoor experiences that, in turn, poured out his fingertips onto the printed page. He wrote 15 books and countless articles. There’s not near enough room to list his honors and awards. His writing was precise and elegantly simple, as all good writing is.

Once, Norm and Sil took in Spence Turner and me, and we had a great time fishing, partying and lying. Norm had built a home next to his and Sil’s for his parents, and it included a rec room with a pool table.

“You don’t want to make the mistake of shooting pool against my mom,” he said. “She’s a shark. Just don’t put any money down unless you’re ready to lose it.” But I challenged this sweet, motherly little lady, and she whipped my butt. I quit while I was behind.

A couple years later Marty and I enjoyed Norm and Sil’s hospitality again. Norm and I sat on their deck, and I confessed that, as upcoming president of OWAA, I wanted to make some mark but didn’t know what.

“Do what you feel most strongly about,” he said. So I lobbied for a permanent home, which, at that time, was premature but maybe started folks thinking. And we revised and strengthened the ethics code.

Strung received OWAA’s Excellence in Craft award in 1989. It was deserved. Strung was a rarity among outdoor communicators – a fine writer who also knew firsthand what he was writing about. He was the Outstanding Board member in 1975 and president in 1984-85. In 1988, he was the Ham Brown recipient for service to OWAA. Also in 1988, he organized and edited a book for OWAA titled Selling the Outdoor Story, which sadly is out of print.

Strung, with Glenn Sapir and the Izaak Walton League of America, also began the Youth Writing Contest, which still exists and now bears his name (see this issue, page 8). For several years at annual conference, he ran a popular skills competition at Breakout Day. The events involved arcane outdoor abilities, like how fast an outdoor communicator could jam a sleeping bag in a stuff sack.

Norm and Sil didn’t have any kids of their own, but they were surrogate parents for several, including John Barsness, one of today’s finest outdoor writers.

If Strung did nothing else, his organization of informal pickin’ parties at OWAA conferences would have ensured his legend. A left-handed banjo player, Norm had been a folkie back in New York (along with his friend and Field & Stream editor Dave

Petzal). Sil played a gut bucket, a galvanized washtub with a hole drilled in the center of the bottom, through which ran a bass string tied to a broom handle that, in turn, was notched to fit over the edge of the tub. You could change the tone by the pressure you put on the handle, and in Sil’s hands the gut bucket became as versatile as the doghouse bass of a jazz musician.

One year, I carted the tub home from a conference, and Marty and I painted some slogan on it: “Official OWAA Gut Bucket” or something like that. “My God!” Sil exclaimed when she saw it the next year. “You ruined the tone!” I was so ashamed.

It’s no secret that Norm took his life. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to be led by this cancer to its suffering, inevitable end,” he wrote to friends. “I’ve always lived life on my terms, and I’m not about to change that.”

He said, “I do believe in some kind of an afterlife. Call it The Other Side. If I’m right, I’ll see you all there someday. Bring a rod and a gun. I’ll be waiting at the bar with an extra martini, double dry, two olives and lots of ice.

“I love you all.”

And, Norm, we love you, too. We’ll bring the gut bucket.

Formerly an information specialist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, Joel Vance is a freelance writer, book author and magazine columnist. An OWAA life member and past president, he is also OWAA’s historian.

© Outdoor Writers Association of America