By Dave Richey
Ben East, at 64 inches tall and 82 years of age and still a man to be reckoned with, best summed up his longtime outdoor writing career over 20 years ago when he said, “I’ve always been a crusading journalist.”
“If I felt an issue needed my editorial efforts, I fought by putting my teeth in it like a bulldog. I would ride herd on a problem until it was brought to a satisfactory conclusion.”
“Satisfactory conclusion” to what was then the dean of outdoor writers meant the unwavering protection and wise use of our natural resources.
East, who was born in 1898 and died in 1990 after lingering for 10 years in a nursing home following a catastrophic stroke, was a man among men in outdoor writing circles. He was also a member of OWAA during the mid-20th century.
A massive stroke stilled his old Royal typewriter in December 1979, but the drumbeat of conservation writing and the many battles that followed began when he started writing outdoor magazine copy in the mid-1920s. He spent 20 years as the outdoor writer for the Grand Rapids Press (MI) before taking a staff position with Outdoor Life magazine in 1946, a record only exceeded by the late Charlie Elliott.
“I leaned heavily toward the protection of all natural resources for the past 30-plus years,” East said in 1980. “If someone or an organization had greedy motives, or wouldn’t consider the environment or its impact on sportsmen, I’d let them have it with both barrels.”
East served as my mentor after my first Outdoor Life story was published in 1971, and what followed was much more than just an inside glimpse of this tireless conservationist. He helped me hone my writing skills as the Michigan editor for the “yellow pages” in that magazine, wrote a foreword for one of my books, and led me down the prickly path toward honest, straight-forward conservation journalism.
His conservation writings in magazines and newspapers are a study of a man who was deeply in love with the outdoors. He could be caustic, never suffered fools well, and he saw his writing career as one to promote conservation efforts and protect wild places for future generations, while being an ardent angler and hunter. However, to cross East when he was fighting conservation issues and sportsmen’s rights was to invite a back-alley scrap that his opponents never won.
Anyone who has hiked the trails of Lake Superior’s Isle Royale or watched coffee-colored water pour over Michigan’s Tahquemenon Falls can thank this man, at least in part, for helping to preserve their wilderness beauty.
East was an outdoor excavator, a man who knew how and where to dig out hard-to-find information. Once he had hard-won data in hand, he would take on anyone or any organization. He whupped the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, led Michigan citizens to tackle state and federal governments, and won milestone lawsuits to protect natural resources. He wasn’t scared to tackle outlaw hunters and once wrote of sportsman abuse in Alaska which led to that state enacting strong legislation promoting fair-chase hunting and outlawing hunting of polar bears and other game from the air.
He took on a Michigan club that dammed a stream flowing through their land, and it nearly became an all-out war. The club intimidated canoers and fishermen because they felt they owned the river. East’s battles over riparian rights took years to settle in court, but now the free-flowing water belongs to the state and its citizens.
By his own admission, though, not everyone thought he was worth the many writing awards and honors he received. He was like a little banty rooster that dominated a barnyard; he didn’t care whose toes he stomped because he cared only for the wise use of our natural resources and would fight anyone who disagreed.
“The people I fought against never had a kind word for me,” he said. “By the time we were finished with a battle, everyone was bloodied and beat. Simply put, I lived down most of the animosity I created by outliving most of my opponents.”
East was a prolific writer and photographer, and other than his beloved conservation articles, his stock-in-trade was ghostwriting magazine articles for anglers and hunters. He learned how to put himself inside the skin of a person with a great story to tell, and he would write it for them in an exciting way.
“I always considered it a challenge to take another man’s story, tell it in his words in a spellbinding way, and make it informative and interesting to the reader,” he said. “Many of those I dealt with could hardly spell their name, let alone write about it.”
These ghostwritten articles led to the publication of three books: Danger, Narrow Escapes & Wilderness Adventures and Survival. Although his true tales of sportsmen who overcame extreme outdoor problems and lived to tell their tale was part of his Outdoor Life duties, he also was in love with bears.
He researched bear attacks, studied the animals at close range and used his 50 years of experience to write his last book, Bears. Those experiences included watching a polar bear charge him on Hudson Bay’s Belcher Islands.
“I had to kill the animal or endure a savage attack, one which few men have lived through,” East said. “I was down to my last cartridge when the animal died just a few feet from my boots.”
East was an editor’s editor. He could finesse written words magically, and his articles, books and newspaper columns sparkled like diamonds. He felt that each word was very important but he used words sparingly with great effect. For him, padding a story with useless drivel was a writer’s sorriest mistake.
Ben East was an elderly man when we first met, and he was sharp tongued about my early writing efforts, but soon the words would meld into a perfectly readable piece. His passion for writing perfectly constructed sentences and paragraphs, his commitment to watching over our natural resources, his loving dedication to his wife Helen, and our mutual friendship were the cornerstones of his life.
He was an OWAA member for a number of years, but never considered compromising his principles, and that led to a fiery argument with longtime OWAA Executive Director J. Hammond Brown. That argument over freebies, he told me, caused him to resign from our organization.
“I miss OWAA, and feel my membership had been good for me and for OWAA, but I refused to compromise my stand and felt it best to leave,” he told me. “I understand OWAA is a far different critter now than then, and I’ll always miss it.”
And I will always miss Ben East. There was no middle ground with this esteemed writer, and his uncompromising ways are the legacies he left behind to every outdoor writer in North America.
Dave Richey is the staff outdoor writer for The Detroit News, a prolific outdoor writer-photographer and the author of 21 books. He credits much of his success to the several years he mentored under Ben East.