As is usually the case with imagined heroes and legends, my first encounter with Dan Klepper was somewhat disappointing. Those imagined are always taller, have booming voices, are scrupulously honest and truthful, are born leaders and tell exceptionally interesting stories. Dan, on the other hand, fitted the image only with the interesting stories part. Even then, I have long suspected that many of them were lies.
Dan and I first met nearly 20 years ago in a muddy, miserably cold and wet harvested rice field on what is popularly known as the “Katy Prairie,” an area just east of Houston, Texas, where every snow goose in the world is fond of congregating on its annual southern migration. Although new to outdoor writing, I was fortunate enough to have been invited by John Fields, owner of the Blue Goose Hunting Club at Altair, to a hunt with Dan and other Texas scribes with such familiar names as Charlie McTee, Larry Bozka, Jim Foster, Paul Hope, Gene Kirkley, Marty Malin, Shannon Tompkins and others of no less fame but whose names I can’t remember.
After the morning hunt, Dan held court from the front bumper of his pickup, which held a built-in ice chest full of cold beer. I gratefully accepted a libation, whereupon a nearby group of sandhill cranes began their cacophony. Foster began improvising on his goose call and soon had the cranes answering back. Knowing that I soon would be attending a hunt for the high-soaring birds, I casually asked Dan if he had ever hunted sandhill cranes.
“Of course,” was his terse reply.
As one who knew very little about any kind of cranes, much less cooking and eating one, I asked what they tasted like.
“Well, a lot like whooping crane, except maybe the meat is a little tougher,” he said. “But that’s probably because they’re not babied as much as the whoopers.”
On the spur of the moment and without any thought, I accepted his evaluation as probably something that I should file away. With my blank face shining in the morning sun, the whole group of writers exploded in raucous laughter. I looked at Dan, and he hadn’t cracked a smile.
Born June 29, 1929, in Dallas, Dan spent his primary years in North Texas, graduating cum laude with a bachelor of arts degree in journalism from North Texas State University at Denton. There he also won honors for his somewhat ribald poetry while editing the school newspaper. He worked for the Denton Record Chronicle for a year before being hired in 1956 as outdoor editor of the San Antonio Express-News. There he remained until his death, Dec. 4, 1993.
Dan’s columns were written for those who loved the outdoors, whether he or she be doctor, ditch digger, lawyer, warehouseman, plumber or whatever. His words were easily understood, although carefully planned toward the wise use of nature’s gifts. He would condemn a game thief as quickly as an overzealous game warden, as well as bringing to light the deeds of unscrupulous politicians and those who would attempt to privatize the use of historically public assets.
It is safe to say that Dan’s words, written or passed from mouth to ear in whispered hallway conversations of the highest offices in Austin, carried a great deal of weight. His writings and photography won awards from OWAA as well as the Texas Outdoor Writers Association, of which he was a charter member and president.
But all that was secondary to Dan, whose primary pursuits were pulling practical jokes, hunting and fishing. While he could shake the halls of Texas government, he was much more satisfied to share a few beers around a campfire and tell stories with those of us he considered friends. I am proud to be among that rather large grouping.
Sadly, although Dan could shake the halls of Texas’ legislative bodies, he was unable to shake the cigarette habit that finally killed him. Long before his death, he knew that the curse of tobacco had put its mark on him. He quit smoking so many times I could nearly set my watch by it, knowing that his one weakness was sapping his vitality. Even though he hated himself for it, he would cadge cigarettes, cigars and even chewing tobacco from anyone who would accommodate him. As one who managed to kick the habit several years before, I could only try to encourage his efforts to quit while knowing the hell he was going through. Each time tobacco would get the best of him, he would grin wryly and say, “I’ll quit one of these days, whether I want to or not.”
Dan was diagnosed with lung cancer in September 1992 and continued to write columns for the Express-News until about three weeks before his death. He died at home, with Nancy, his wife of 40 years, son, E. Daniel and daughters Connie and Jennie nearby. According to his wishes his remains were cremated, although a final joke he wanted to play wasn’t possible. He once had stated that he wished his ashes to be thrown into Honey Creek (a pristine, carefully guarded creek in the Texas Hill Country), “just so I can piss off the Nature Conservancy one more time.”
Although unable to fulfill that request, Nancy did scatter his ashes in the Sabinal River at a location where they would meander through the hunting lease he had frequented for many years with old companions. This was deliberately done during dove season, in order to add some further discomfort to his hunting buddies.
Nearly 10 years have passed since Dan left us, but Nancy recently confided that she still misses “the ornery rascal.”
I do too, Nancy. I do too.
Bud McDonald is a freelance writer and photographer from Iron Station, N.C. McDonald has been an OWAA member since 1984.