By Bill Cochran
On May 25, 1962, Bob Gooch filled out an OWAA membership application, attached $15 to it – $10 for the annual dues and $5 for the initiation fee – and mailed it from his home in Troy, Va., to OWAA headquarters in Baltimore, Md.
On the form, Bob wrote, “In my area there are a number of weekly newspapers, none of which at present has an outdoor column. Within the next several weeks I plan to approach several of them regarding this possibility.”
That was the modest beginning of an outdoor writing career that would lead to legend status.
Bob took up outdoor writing at a time when he could have kicked back and savored his many accomplishments in other endeavors. He graduated from the University of Virginia in 1942 with a degree in economics. After Pearl Harbor, he joined the Marines and served as an artillery officer in the Guam and Iwo Jima campaigns in World War II. He retired from the Marine Corps Reserve as a colonel. He spent 25 years in the insurance business in Richmond, Va.; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore and Charlottesville, Va.
Then came 40 years of outdoor writing, during which his name grew to be synonymous with hunting, fishing and conservation in Virginia and beyond. His peers affectionately called him “the dean of Virginia outdoor writers.”
“It was the writings of Bob Gooch that helped me to learn about the commonwealth’s outdoors when I moved to Virginia from Wisconsin 32 years ago,” said Spike Knuth, a Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries wildlife artist and writer.
When Virginia bid on the 2007 OWAA conference (to be held in Roanoke, June 16-19) Bob’s name immediately came to the forefront to anchor the effort. He was designated honorary chairman.
Bob always was involved in OWAA functions, but he worked extra hard with the Virginia team to win the Roanoke bid, traveling to conferences in Columbia, Mo.; Spokane, Wash.; and Madison, Wis., where he and Ginny, his beloved wife of 62 years, worked the Virginia displays and hospitality rooms with grace and charm. Bob was chairman the last time OWAA’s conference was held in Virginia, at Virginia Beach in 1978. That year, Pete Czura was incoming and Mark Sosin was outgoing president.
Bob and Ginny planned to attend the 2006 conference in Lake Charles, La., but on a balmy day in March, heart failure took Bob at age 86. That morning, his family gathered around him in the farmhouse that has been in the Gooch name since 1822, where Bob was born and where he wrote. Located in the rolling hills of Virginia’s Piedmont region, it is a setting where quail call on warm summer days, stylish pointing dogs are housed in a kennel out back and the aroma of gunpowder is as much a part of fall and winter as frost.
Just as he promised on his OWAA membership application, Bob began a syndicated outdoor column, “Virginia Afield.” For 40 years it appeared in approximately 25 newspapers. During that time, Bob never missed a deadline.
Nancy Sorrells describes herself as one of the “lowly” newspaper staffers who received Bob’s weekly column, which was typed on a manual typewriter, folded and mailed in a white, legal-sized envelope. Her job was to reset it.
“I didn’t know Bob then, but he took me and those hundreds and hundreds of other readers on trips through the outdoors,” Sorrells said. “His love of hunting and fishing, his concern for the environment and his bond with his dogs pulled us all in.”
Bob’s work often appeared in the smaller newspapers, the weeklies, where there would be no outdoor coverage apart from his. It is difficult to imagine how many people he introduced to the pleasures of the outdoors. For some, including Nancy, his influence led to a career in outdoor writing.
Bob authored 20 books on various outdoor subjects and more than 2,000 magazine articles. He frequently wrote about topics that other writers overlooked or considered beneath their dignity. Who, for example, would write a book on pickerel? It was obvious that his intent wasn’t to get rich.
But he didn’t just write about the outdoors; he was an outdoorsman. His personal involvement and experience as an angler, hunter, trapper and conservationist breathed life and reality into his work.
Words that his peers used to describe him include “Virginia gentleman,” “gracious,” “generous,” “helpful,” “friendly,” “knowledgeable,” “hero,” “legend,” “mentor” and “friend.”
Many things set Bob apart but none more than his commitment to encouraging budding writers. He never saw newcomers as competitors, but rather as companions to help spread the gospel of hunting and fishing and the wholesome joys of the outdoors.
“Bob must have felt that writing was like sunshine; there was always enough for everybody,” said Garvey Winegar. “He and his wife, Ginny, would get in the car and drive anywhere in Virginia to prop up someone who was enduring a blizzard of rejections — or possibly a working writer who just needed encouragement.”
Bob still will be honorary chairman of the Roanoke conference. It is just that when we mention it, tears will come to our eyes.
“I guess my most lasting impression of Bob was his ever-present smile and that twinkle in his eye,” said Mark Taylor, conference co-chair. “He just seemed so content and happy, and it was infectious.”
Bob will be honored at the conference during a Father’s Day salute to OWAA dads on Sunday, June 17.
Bill Cochran was outdoor editor of The Roanoke Times for 36 years and now hosts an outdoor Web site, www.billcochran.com. He is co-chair, with Mark Taylor, of the Roanoke conference. Visit www.owaa.org for details on “Salute to OWAA Fathers.” Photos accompanying this article are courtesy of the Gooch family.