Five decades of OWAA

In honor of OWAA’s 90th birthday, Outdoors Unlimited asked five past presidents, each representing a different decade, to talk about their year in office and what they hope for the organization in the future. To hear more from other past presidents, be sure to attend a special reception June 23, at the Holiday Inn & Suites in Duluth, Minnesota.

Year of presidency: I was officially president of OWAA in 1977-1978 and chairman of the board in 1978-1979. However, I actually served as president for 2½ years. Wally Taber served before me, but Wally went on an annual speaking tour from December to June and was out of contact most of that time. That left me as the top decision maker for that half year. When I was chairman of the board, Pete Czura was elected president. Unfortunately, Pete was in poor health, so the role of the president once again fell to me.
Defining moment(s) or accomplishment(s) of the year: During my presidency, Ed Hanson, our executive director, called me early one morning to tell me that the building where we had an office was on fire and he was trying his best to save OWAA’s membership records. In the background, I could hear the firemen tell Ed he had to leave the building or they would physically remove him. It was a long morning before Ed called back to tell me that most of our records had been saved. During my term, Clare Conley, the editor of Field & Stream, was brought up on ethics charges and I chaired the board during those proceedings. Clare was found guilty and in his final public statement at the hearing he announced that I would never be able to sell a story again to Field & Stream or any other publication on which he was part of the staff. He kept that promise and, if Clare’s name was on the masthead, I wouldn’t send a query.
How has OWAA changed since your presidency? Forty years ago when I served as president, most of the members focused on hunting or fishing. Today, our membership reflects a much more diverse group. Over those years, OWAA membership grew dramatically and then began to taper off and decline. Some of that loss reflected political problems, but there certainly are other reasons.
What is your hope for the organization in the future? The ongoing goal of OWAA has always been to increase membership. Over more years than I can count the approach has targeted the newcomer to the field. Most of the conference programs are tailored toward the beginner. Taking a broader view, we need to appeal to the veteran outdoor communicator as well, through specific conference programs and also with articles in OU.
Year of presidency: 1987-1988
Defining moment(s) or accomplishment(s) of the year: The 1988 conference at Marco Island, Florida, was termed the “best ever” by many members. Joel Vance, the vice president, was program planner, working in concert with Kris Thoemke, our on-site chairman. They did an outstanding job. My late wife, Joan, could not attend (we owned a monogram shop that demanded her full time), so two fine ladies — Marty Vance and the late Jackie Pfeiffer — good friends forever, came to my rescue and did a super job of assisting me at every turn. My president’s reception was a smash hit. With help from two employers (Lowrance Electronics and National Reporter Publications (now NatCom), I purchased two large Coleman coolers, had them filled with beef and pork barbecue (from my home town favorite restaurant) and shipped by air to the Marco Island Marriott. The hotel staff cooperated in serving and OWAA provided other needed foods and beverages. It was a fine party with a lot of gate crashers. At the first board meeting, I moved that so-called “goodie bags” and expensive handout items from sponsors and corporate members be eliminated. The move was tabled, to be opened again, and approved, at the Des Moines, Iowa, conference a year later. I tend to brag because I appointed Tom Huggler chairman of a fine “contest committee,” asking that contest rules and regulations be revamped, improved and simplified. The group did an excellent job, largely removing sponsor names from contests and judging, and providing generalized categories for entrants. Mark LaBarbera also did yeoman duty on that committee. Both later served OWAA admirably as presidents.
How has OWAA changed since your presidency? OWAA in Jan. 1988 (my year at the helm) had 1,871 individual and 325 supporting members. All that changed after Spokane, Washington, with the NRA flap in 2004. Fortunately, I missed that meeting because of Joan’s strokes, and have not attended since. I was not a happy camper, since I sponsored NRA’s membership years before when Gary Anderson was its executive director. However, I chose not to resign, as many did. I still think of OWAA as fine organization, but doubt it will ever reach the heights of those earlier years.
What is your hope for the organization in the future? I can only wish the organization well in the future, that it will grow and prosper.
Year of presidency: 1992-1993
Defining moment(s) or accomplishment(s) of the year: My presidential year began in June 1992 at the Bismarck, North Dakota, conference and ended in Portland, Oregon, 12 months later. My term as OWAA’s 45th president coincided with its 65th anniversary. We experienced the growing budgetary pains that come with servicing a vibrant organization of 1,900 active members. Sylvia Bashline, executive director, planned to retire in 1994 after a decade of leadership. Her early announcement set in motion the need for a blue ribbon steering committee to determine best practices for finding her replacement, I appointed former president Howard Bach as committee chair. More than 30 other committees were active. Highlights included:

  • Establishing the Restricted Endowment Fund.
  • Approving major changes to our contest program.
  • Adopting an OWAA mission statement.
  • Formalizing the voluntary OWAA seal of approval and rating system for video productions.
  • Moving forward with the new OWAA Center for Conservation and Environmental Literacy at the Denver Public Library.
  • Compiling a list of OWAA members available for speaking engagements.
  • Beginning the practice of OWAA officers meeting with regional and state writer groups at our annual conference.

A disappointment was the failure of the member liaison committee to conduct exit interviews with departing members to learn why they left us and how to improve retention.
The year was not without friction. Board action in June to increase supporting member dues by 50 percent was pared to 20 percent in December. A movement to allow voting privileges for supporting members was denied.
How has OWAA changed since your presidency? OWAA is much smaller now, due largely to the ensuing NRA rift in 2004, the seeds of which were already growing during my term.
What is your hope for the organization in the future? Strength through numbers is the way forward. The theme of my Niagara Falls, New York, conference was “Broadening our Horizons,” an effort to welcome other communicators (nature, environment, silent sports writers) into our fold. Twenty-five years later, the hope remains.
Year of presidency: 2001-2002
Defining moment(s) or accomplishment(s) of the year: We began the year on a high note, as I recall, with my intention to move OWAA away from its dependence upon the outdoor industry and toward more individual independence. I realized it wasn’t going to be possible within a year, but wanted to at least begin a push in that direction. We also were on the cusp of a technological revolution that’s still not over, and I wanted to get us a bit ahead of the ball (after my presidency). That, of course, has largely happened, although we’re still a bit behind in some areas…unfortunately, as many can imagine, I’m getting a bit too old to keep up with my own 5-year-old grandson, much less OWAA’s diverse membership. About in the middle of my year, Steve Wagner, our executive director, resigned to take a different job. He was a terrific director and I spent the rest of my term engineering a search, interviews and selection process, which ended with the hiring of Bill Geer. Bill also was a great ED, but lasted just a couple of years before Kevin Rhoades arrived. I was happy to have seen, and been at the hub of, a smooth transition in our staff, but would like to have moved the original needle more. That did eventually happen, I think, and I’m comfortable where things have gone.
How has OWAA changed since your presidency? As stated, we underwent some enormous shifts with the departure of much of the hunting crowd amid the NRA dust-up, but it was bound to have happened at some point. The tail simply couldn’t wag the dog. OWAA then became leaner, but retained its core values and rebuilt itself into a much broader organization with multiple disciplines, audiences and, especially, technology. Today, I still see a leaner OWAA, but with strong inner dimensions and leadership. And it’s not as lean as before. The basic human needs to meet, mingle, exchange ideas, assist others, etc., are all entrenched in OWAA.
What is your hope for the organization in the future? That we remain at the heart of outdoor communication and be a fountainhead of ideas and vision in a time when more and more of our youth are being reared in an age of sound bites and quick video gratification. That we make others aware of the inherent danger of global environmental ignorance. The outdoors will always be there…with us or against us.
Year of presidency: 2013-2014
Defining moment(s) or accomplishment(s) of the year: I was the last third vice president before that post was eliminated, and I tend to think of my time on the executive committee in terms of all four years, rather than just one. In a group effort by staff and officers, we managed a transition between executive directors and stayed on budget. I am very proud of having played a key role in planning the Fairbanks, Alaska, conference, a success that brought new members and a major jolt of energy into OWAA. The energy carried over into excellent conferences in Lake Placid, New York, and McAllen, Texas. During challenging times, I brought a calm hand to the board and helped recruit some excellent officers and board members who have greatly benefited OWAA. During those years, I also chaired an ad hoc diversity committee that had some success in reaching out to people of color in the outdoor field.
How has OWAA changed since your presidency? I see more variety in how our members communicate and what they are covering, which is good. The OWAA staff and board members are adapting to media and marketing trends that continue to get more splintered and complex, making their job more challenging.
What is your hope for the organization in the future? I hope OWAA continues to attract the kindred spirits among communicators and supporters. They are people who treasure the outdoors and want to be among the best in explaining nature’s value to individuals and America. And I hope we someday make improvements in our ability to communicate with, and involve, diverse ethnic and cultural groups. I hope annual conferences continue to make OWAA feel like an adventuresome family. ♦

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