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Outdoor Legend Roger Latham

By Nick Sisley

Roger Latham could do it all — set a dry fly on the water with real touch, make perfect presentations to bonefish, handle tarpon behemoths, call turkeys with the best, and he possessed top wing-shooting skills. Further, with intimacy he knew all the flora and fauna in the woods, fields and waters. His broad knowledge in this latter realm was amazing; he set a standard that will probably never be attained again. Strong words, I know. And even beyond all the above, Latham had special skills with words. He could put them together so they’d pull your heart out, or he could dispense knowledge through his writing in a way that you hardly knew you were learning. He made it that easy.

Despite all his greatness, Latham was Mr. Unpretentious — personified. At the height of his career, which had already spanned five decades of conservation and writing, he lost his life photographing chamois in the Swiss Alps.

Many older OWAA members remember this legend, although newer members may know little of this huge man. Latham was president of OWAA in 1963-1964, and in 1961 he received OWAA’s most time-honored award, the Jade of Chiefs. Members preceding him in receiving this award were Arthur Carhart (the first recipient), Sports Afield’s Henry P. Davis and the unforgettable Nash Buckingham. I accompanied Roger’s wife, Jo Latham, to Albuquerque, NM, for OWAA’s June 1979 annual conference. Jo accepted Roger’s Excellence in Craft Award, a very emotional presentation considering Roger had died one month before conference.

Although Latham was very active in OWAA, he was even more active in other organizations, such as the Boy Scouts of America, YMCA, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Pennsyl-vania Forestry, wildlife organizations and many others. His conservation efforts far outdistanced his outdoor expertise. What a background he made for himself.

A few years out of high school Latham was accepted into the first class of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Ross Leffler School of Conservation. He graduated from that class in 1937. Practically everyone in that class went on to conservation laurels of some significance. The Game Commission was quick to recognize Latham’s skills, and in 1938 they placed him in charge of the Loyalsock Wildlife Experiment Station near Williamsport, PA. This is where the restoration of the Pennsylvania wild turkey began.

During World War II, Latham was stationed at Cornell University where he worked for the Office of Scientific Research and Development (part of the War Department) in a project that researched and discovered the proper food and clothing for arctic troops.

Perhaps it was at Cornell where Latham learned the benefits of higher education. Not long after returning to the Game Commission, post-WW II, Latham took a leave of absence and worked on his bachelor’s degree at Pennsylvania State University. He breezed through his undergraduate degree in zoology, then very rapidly progressed through a master’s in wildlife management, soon followed by a doctorate in zoology. During this time, he was made chief of the Wildlife Research Division of the Game Commission.

But then Johnny Mock died, outdoor editor of the Pittsburgh Press, and Latham applied for the job. Without question, his background made him a no-brainer selection. This was a position he held until his death in Switzerland.

Roger Latham spearheaded the task of saving Pennsylvania’s Clarion River. Once polluted severely, the Clarion was adopted by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy because of Latham’s suggestion. Today the saving of the Clarion River is heralded by anglers and other conservationists as a model conservation effort. This river not only holds fish, mostly smallmouth and trout, but, more importantly, the Clarion flows through majestic and wild country that can be enjoyed by untold numbers of people.

A couple of months after Roger’s death, Jo Latham asked me to spend an afternoon with her trying to take a rough inventory of all the hunting and fishing paraphernalia in his office. One look and I knew this was going to be a huge job. We worked hard that afternoon at “taking stock.” When it was over she insisted I keep several of his treasures, including his Orvis Battenkill eight-foot fly rod, his Fin-Nor classic saltwater fly reel (with his name on it), and his 11-weight saltwater fly rod.

One September 1979 evening, after a great fishing day in Quebec for smallmouth, I took Latham’s Battenkill out to work some nearby water upstream from a waterfall. Within a cast or two a huge smallmouth took my cork popper, and I swear I could feel Latham’s hand on the handle of my fly rod. That brown bass made numerous jumps, maybe one special show for Latham himself. After I released that fish I sat down in the boat for a long, long time, thinking about Latham.

Then, just before dark, I put the Battenkill back in its bag and case, cranked the outboard and pointed the bow back to camp. I’ve taken that Orvis out of its case several times over the intervening 21 years, but I’ve never fished with it again. One experience was enough.

As a speaker, Latham commanded very attractive rates, busy many evenings speaking from behind a podium, including gratis speaking involving serious conservation issues to organizations such as the Boy Scouts, the Nature Conservancy, YMCA and more.

For all his expertise and laurels, Latham never sought the limelight. He was very soft spoken with an easy-going manner. I never heard him raise his voice. He had a grace about him that was catchy — no swearing, no bad words for his fellow man, personification of the word gentleman if there ever was one, as well as a guy with great personal and intellectual integrity. Everyone I know had nothing to say but good things about this OWAA legend.

Nick Sisley is a freelance outdoor writer who travels the world in search of story material. From Apollo, PA, Sisley also works as a photographer, consultant and pilot.

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