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Bob Elman, A Giant Has Fallen

By Roland Cheek

For God so loved the natural world that He gave His only misbegotten editor, so that wannabe writers who listeneth to him should not perish, but have everlasting bylines.

So Bob Elman wasn’t exactly the chosen one. So other editors might have more charisma and charm, but prove less capable and effective, so what? So what that he first had to overcome city breeding and rearing in order to embrace outdoors yearning? So what that Elman was irascible by day, impossible by night? So what that he possessed a short attention span for lousy writing and even shorter shrift for egotistical producers of lousy writing, no matter how inflated their egos or upon how many mastheads they were represented? The man understood fine writing and what makes for literature. And there may be no editor extant with his rare ability to berate and embrace, cajole and demand, chastise and elevate, instruct and develop, until he’d milked a writer to the point where all the would-be cream rose to the top.

Robert Elman died the day before Thanksgiving 2000. For much of his outdoor editing career he’d been a strong supporter of OWAA, joining the organization in 1968. He contributed a chapter to OWAA’s own Selling the Outdoor Story, supplied myriad Craft Improvement articles for Outdoors Unlimited, and counseled dozens, perhaps hundreds of members on bettering their skills.

Elman was a professional giant in the world of outdoors publishing, serving as managing editor and editor in chief of Maco Publishing Company, 1960-69; outdoor editor and writer-in-residence for Ridge Press, 1969-1972 and 1975-77; associate editor and editor in chief for Winchester Press, 1973-75 and 1979-84. From 1984 until his death, Elman served as a free-lance editor and editorial and publishing consultant, including service as chief editor and editorial consultant to Skyline Publishing Company in Montana.

In addition to his noblest calling as an editor, Elman also wrote books, including The Living World of Audubon Animals, 1976; 1001 Hunting Tips, 1978; The Atlantic Flyway, 1980; America’s Pioneering Naturalists, 1981; The Game Bird Hunter’s Bible, 1993. In addition, he collected and, along with David Seybold, compiled and edited one of the all-time masterpiece anthologies about hunting, Seasons of the Hunter, 1985.

Elman was also a member of the Authors League and Authors Guild. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, 1953, and served in the U.S. Army infantry from 1953-55. He is survived by his wife Ellen, daughters Natalie and Catherine, and sons Tom and Daniel.

My first contact with Elman goes back to a letter I mailed May 26, 1984, asking for his help. He surprised me by replying and gradually our correspondence expanded. He modestly tried to assist me become a more accomplished craftsman, even to the point of advising me where and how to sell pieces to his own contacts, including Vin Sparano, Tom Fulgham and Craig Boddington. He strived so diligently to give a boost that it became embarrassing. I asked why? He turned philosophical:

“… What’s in this for me, mostly,” he wrote in an Aug. 5, 1985, letter, “is the satisfaction of helping a writer who deserves help, plus friendship, plus an odd notion I can’t explain about paying my professional dues, plus the possibility of a future bit of ego gratification if the time comes when I can say I discovered you.”

Discovery be damned! What I most needed and wanted was a better understanding of my craft. And when the time came in 1996 that Jane and I decided to self-publish our book, Learning to Talk Bear, we retained Elman to edit the work for us. Did he ever! He became much more than a mere editor, morphosing into publishing consultant and craft lecturer. Four-page, single-spaced letters going into microscopic detail on both goods and bads of each segment of the manuscript was the norm. Sprinkled within each page were humorous tidbits, sometimes slapstick, sometimes wry observation. They were so precious that we looked forward to the return of manuscript segments as much for Elman’s letters as for his editorial comments. Here’s a classic blurb from his Dec. 9, 1997, cover letter relative to a portion of our second book:

“PROBLEM 1: NIMROD, DAME FORTUNE, LADY LUCK, WINTER WONDERLAND — and all other such limping, bedraggled clichés. It would serve you right if the estates of Bing Crosby and Perry Como sued you for unauthorized use of ‘Winter Wonderland’ lyric, and Frank Sinatra joined with the whole surviving cast of “Guys and Dolls” in a class-action suit over your unauthorized use of ‘Lady Luck’ in an inappropriate setting (neither musical nor comical). On the other hand, maybe they’d thank you for at long last beating those exhausted clichés to death. …”

Elman would’ve done well as a humor writer. Here are excerpts from one of his proposals for a tongue-in-cheek piece on fly patterns:

“I have been asked why, in my seminal essay on angling for bluegills (Lepomis macrochirus), I avoided mention of my 12 most famous fly patterns, collectively dubbed The Final Solution by certain tasteless and insensitive critics. … Modesty precludes my calling the series anything more grandiloquent than my original descriptive but unassuming term, the Apocalyptic Patterns. …”

He goes on to list them:

* No-Hackle Nun’s Buns

* Beagle-Hair Caddis

* Open Fly

* Right-Wing Deceiver

* Bipartisan Wobbler

* Friday Night Special

* Cod Piece

* Mexican Hairless Variant

Elman had an enormous hand in shaping me as a writer. Others have helped and most are members of OWAA. But none so much as my friend and mentor from Stewartsville, NJ.

Will I miss him? Absolutely. Enormously.

Yet even now I hear his echo: “Roland, you must be the most insecure guy I know. You’re a fine writer. Get over worrying about it.”

But I also hear other echoes: “Clarity, damn it! Clarity! Clarity! What will it take to beat that into your tiny cerebrum?”

Those are echoes from the finest editor who ever lived. He was a giant in the organization — a 5-feet-7-inch shuffling giant with an obsession for the written word that transcended money or talent and embraced willingness and perspiration and desire and dedication. That more members of OWAA failed to utilize an opportunity to be closely involved with him is their loss.

And OWAA’s.

Roland Cheek, of Columbia Falls, MT, is a freelance writer and book author. Cheek writes a weekly column for eight Montana and Oregon newspapers.

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