Joel Vance offers this tribute to his friend.
We called him the Iron Man. There never was a thicket too dense or a briar patch too spiky that he couldn’t bull through, especially if there was a chance that a covey of quail or crouching grouse was lurking there. Spence Turner, my dear friend for 47 years finally ran into a cover too thick even for the Iron Man to bust through.
It was pancreatic cancer, a vicious disease of an organ you wish you could do without like your appendix or your tonsils— but you can’t. Spence gave it a heroic year-long battle but even the Iron Man couldn’t beat something so cruel and insidious.
We became friends on the first day of an orientation course for new employees at the Missouri Department of Conservation in 1969. Spence was a trout biologist and I was a word scribbler. Turned out he was born and raised 18 miles from the Wisconsin town where my mother was born and raised. We had fished the same brook trout streams–Weirgor, Thirty Three, and Forty Eight–and probably had eaten cheese from the Rice Lake creamery and had had drunk Bruenig’s lager at Birchwood’s Hud’s Place, founded by my uncles Hud and Bud Soper.
For the next half century Spence and I traveled the country to hunt and fish. We fished in Yellowstone, landed near identical Chinook salmon in Oregon’s Clackamas River, shot pheasants in the Dakotas, caught trout in Arkansas and killed grouse and woodcock in northern Minnesota. Spence would hunt all day through dense brush, come back to the cabin, feed his dogs, clean his gun and maybe cook a gourmet meal of woodcock breasts. He was after all, the Iron Man.
As a trout biologist, Spence took over a floundering Missouri trout program with limited cold water resources and maximized it, sometimes edging around bureaucratic roadblocks. He discovered new trout areas and documented the history of Missouri’s century-old attempts to introduce cold water species into a warm water environment.
By hanging around with a writer, me, he figured that if I could do it so could he. He started writing about the outdoors and I sponsored him as a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. He called me the Editor From Hell because I chewed on him if he resorted to cliché or careless writing. It didn’t take long until the chewing stopped. Spence was a natural, a writer wrapped up in biologist’s waders.
And then he was elected to the OWAA board of directors and was voted the outstanding board member. Then he was elected president of the organization and led it through a touchy crisis when many members resigned over a childish spat and an imagined slight.
Spence used a combination of diplomacy, cooperation, cajoling and charm to soothe ruffled feathers and OWAA survived its political hiccup stronger than ever. When OWAA chose Columbia, Spence’s hometown, as a conference site, Spence was the conference chairman and pulled together what has been acclaimed as the best meeting in the group’s 80 plus year history. It was a masterful job of organization and Spence pulled it off with unruffled aplomb.
In addition to his long list of bragging rights Spence also racked up a list of unmemorable events. once he cut off the end of a finger when a boat latch malfunctioned and severed it. I found an artificial finger in a joke store, had it mounted, and presented it to him at a banquet. Another time he was towing a trailer load of canoes in the Ozarks when the trailer passed him on a downgrade. The subsequent crash demolished the new canoes on the trailer, leaving only the old, battered ones that no one wanted anyway.
Once we were in South Dakota hunting pheasants. At the end of a long tiring hunt we all gathered at the vehicles to head back to our motels. Spence was in a different motel than the other three of us.
“We have a problem” Spence said. “My truck keys are either back at the motel or locked in the truck. “We told him it was more like” “you have a problem, not us,” but my son-in-law Ron DeValk bent a shotgun cleaning rod several ways and fashioned a car jack to flip the door lock. He told our bemused guide that he was a brain surgeon and knew how to do delicate probes. Perhaps the guy believed him. We left early the next morning just ahead of a Dakota blizzard and made it home in good shape.
But Spence’s motel caught fire in the middle of the night and he had to evacuate in his underwear–as the first snowflakes fell. He didn’t get home for a day or two. But that was Spence, the Iron Man. There never was a calamity or an inconvenience that Spence didn’t take with good humor and equanimity. I envied him his patience and good cheer, attributes that I wish I had.
Spence Turner stories abound. Once when we were duck hunting in Minnesota, Spence made a great passing shot on what he thought was a duck, but which proved to be a coot. He put up with much ragging about it but that night cooked a gourmet meal of woodcock breasts among which were the coot breasts. No one noticed and all praised his culinary skills. Spence not only could cook—he liked to eat and referred to himself as a rotund trout biologist.
Spence always had weak ankles. Finally he decided to have one operated on but after the operation he developed an infection which ultimately resulted in an amputation below the knee. That put an end to his bird hunting but within weeks he was stomping around on a prosthetic leg on a fishing trip. You couldn’t keep the Iron Man down.
He often tried weight reduction ideas but his appetite caught up to them. It took that awful final disease to trim off 100 pounds but even as Spence declined in weight his spirit didn’t. They relieved him of some of his stomach and pancreas using as a scalpel guide the scar left by gallbladder incision years earlier. That operation hadn’t slowed him any more than did the loss of his leg.
But inevitably chemotherapy and operations began to rust the Iron Man and he finally told the doctors he didn’t want any more treatment— to leave him alone to enjoy what time he had left doing what he wanted to do.
He and his wife Joan, his constant and much loved wife of more than 50 years, traveled around the country in those last months, cramming a lifetime into a short time. His last trip was to Billings, Montana, to the annual OWAA conference, the meeting he chaired so efficiently years before. He called from the past presidents’ table at the closing night’s banquet and when I asked him how he was doing said only “I’ve had better days.”
Not long after, Joan called to say that Spence was in hospice care and fading in and out. “He says he sleeping his way to heaven” she said. That was typical Spence, meeting life and death head on with humor and without fear. He was the Iron Man and he plowed over that last steep hill as resolutely as he had every other one in his life.
If there is a heaven, another and brighter side to that last impenetrable thicket, I hope it is a vast field where Spence’s big running setters have room to roam and where he has both legs made of iron. I hope the field is full of pheasants, quail and grouse and that he can shoot straight even if the occasional rooster pheasant proves to be a coot. The world will not be the same place without Spence Turner. He touched many lives, proved over and over again that his heart was bigger than the outdoors that he loved so dearly.