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BY COLLEEN MINIUK-SPERRY
In fall 2009, I received an email. A gentleman cordially outlined he had received my name from the Arizona Highways Photography Workshops and wondered if I would like to speak at his Grand Photography Club. After I enthusiastically agreed to do so, he offered to buy me lunch prior to my presentation.
Although I had never met him, the camera dangling around his neck made Jim Smith easy to pick out at the restaurant. Minutes into our introductory chatter, I learned we had more in common than just a love of nature photography. Jim grew up in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, just three towns east of where I spent half of my childhood. He had also, like me, changed careers to pursue his passion for the outdoors. Although he had started and ran his own real estate firm in Denver for 25 years, he left it behind to spend more time doing things he loved, like big game hunting, muskie fishing and target shooting. But he wanted to do more than simply participate; he aimed to share the joy of these activities with others through his writing and photography.
After our first meeting, I knew Jim not only dreamed big, but also pursued those ideas with gusto. As if authoring hundreds of outdoor articles for a variety of publications and winning many awards for his wildlife photography was not enough, he also served as the President for Muskie, Inc., was the editor emeritus of MUSKIE Magazine, a director for the National Rifle Association, and the Wildlife Commissioner for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. In 2013, the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame inducted him as a Legendary Communicator.
He also found time to teach hunter safety classes and organize fishing derbies for children. In addition, Jim served as President of the Grand Photography Club for a number of years, where he tirelessly (and seemingly effortlessly) helped me coordinate multiple photography seminars and workshops to benefit not only his club’s members, but also other photographers from camera clubs across Phoenix. Jim loved the outdoors, photography, writing, learning, and people. He magically blended these pursuits together to create rich, supportive learning communities.
During one of our conversations, Jim asked if I had ever heard of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. Before I could answer, he rattled off a laundry list of people in the group to whom he wanted to introduce me. He also said he wanted me to present at the upcoming conference in Rochester, Minnesota.
“I think you should become a member,” he said.
He handed me the membership application with his name already signed as my sponsor.
In summer 2010, I met all those talented communicators Jim mentioned (and many more) in Rochester. Prior to this event, I struggled to find my path as a photographer. What I learned during the conference inspired me to drop all my uninteresting commercial outlets to focus exclusively on the Great Outdoors. Jim had guided me to the mother ship and it changed my life.
My first year in the organization, Jim told me I’d get out of it, whatever I put into it. It was sound advice from someone who joined OWAA in 1992 and actively engaged with the organization. Jim chaired the Membership Recruitment Committee from 2007-2009 and participated in the Reference Manual Committee from 2005-2006, the Officer Nominating and Host Committee from 2008-2009, the Contest, Craft Improvement and Member Recruitment committees from 2009-2010 and the Craft Improvement Committee from 2010-2011. He also led the Photography Section for a short time and served on the Board of Directors from 2008-2010. In my five years as a member, I have tried to follow Jim’s large footsteps.
Despite his declining health in recent years, Jim never passed up the chance to meet for lunch. While grabbing a bite in December 2014, he joked about his ailments.
“Well, I know I’m not going to live forever,” he said. I took a moment to express to Jim how appreciative I was for all of his help and support over the years.
On Feb. 1, I received an email. Jim’s wife of 19 years, Lynda, wanted to inform me that just days after celebrating his 77th birthday, James “Jim” Todd Smith had passed away peacefully in his sleep. As Jim’s best friend (and former OWAA member), Steve Budnik, summarized in a recent tribute for MUSKIE Magazine: “A life well lived, and lived to the fullest, to be sure.”
In between the tears, I have found much joy in knowing that Jim’s guidance, encouragement, and support has allowed me to achieve so much more than I could have ever imagined. Simply put, Jim gave me wings. Jim’s legacy, spirit and impact on us will flourish forever. ♦
– Hailing from Chandler, Arizona, Colleen Miniuk-Sperry left her project management job in Corporate America in 2007 to pursue a career as a freelance outdoor photographer, writer, publisher, and speaker.