As a boy growing up in the delta of eastern Arkansas, it was hard to find good role models. I had three — my mother, my pastor and Henry Reynolds.
Mom instilled in me the values of hard work, knowledge and perseverance. Brother Harry taught me humility and compassion. Henry Reynolds drew me into a career as an outdoor communicator.
From 1956 through 1988, Henry was the outdoors editor at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, TN. In the late 1960s, at age 11 or 12, I started reading his columns in Sunday’s newspaper, devouring every word about the fishing or hunting he did each week, the sportsmen he met, the places he visited, and the conservation issues that worried him. Henry wrote mostly about the simpler pleasures — oxbow bass fishing, hunting ducks in flooded timber, cooking and eating nature’s bounties, watching after our precious outdoor heritage. That’s why I savored his articles. Henry wrote about the things I did, the places I visited. He was an icon to me and my teenage companions, and we agreed that when we got older, we’d like to have a job like his.
Some folks never meet their icons. That wasn’t the case with me. A mutual acquaintance introduced Henry and me at an OWAA conference more than 15 years ago. I was awestruck. There, in the flesh, was one of my true heroes. “I’s a real pleasure to meet you Mr. Reynolds,” I said.
“Don’t call me Mr. Reynolds, son,” he said. “My friends call me Henry.” From that day forth, Henry was my friend. He offered advice, whenever I asked, and set a forthright example for me to follow.
One night, standing on the bank of Arkansas’ Little Red River not far from the home where he retired, I told Henry how his outdoor columns had fueled my interest in the outdoors and helped shape my decision to become an outdoor writer. “You were one of my role models, Henry.”
Henry looked at me incredulously. “Your role model, huh?” he pondered, kicking the dirt with the toe of his shoe. He looked up, placed a hand on each of my shoulders, then embraced me, patting my back.
“You poor son-of-a-bitch. That’s got to be the saddest story I ever heard.”
We laughed, but I noticed Henry’s chest had swelled just a bit as we walked inside.
Honest. Compassionate. Humble. Funny. I remember Henry that way. Others who knew him better describe him in deeper terms.
“Henry had a solid reputation as a newsman and outdoor writer,” said Joe Mosby, who became Henry’s friend and colleague in the early 1970s while working as outdoors editor at the Arkansas Gazette. “He viewed the outdoors as belonging to everybody — the guy with dirt under his fingernails as well as the corporate executive in a three-piece suit. He had little patience with pomposity, and because of that, he developed a lot of critics over the years. He wasn’t a crusader but he didn’t back away from things either. Good or bad, he told it like he saw it. He was able to notice trends in the outdoors when they were first developing, and used that knack to help many people and organizations.”
Henry helped boost the careers of such well-known people as television personality Bill Dance, and Ray Scott, founder of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society.
“He was one of those special people in my life,” Dance said in an interview with The Commercial Appeal outdoors editor Larry Rea following Henry’s death in November 1995. “Without Henry’s support, I would not be where I am today. He was always supportive of what I was doing.”
“What can I say about a man who meant so much to me and my career?” Scott said. “I owe a lot to Henry. More than I can ever repay. He was there when I needed him. He was one of those guys you could always count on for support.”
Henry was born in Pine Bluff, AR, and started his newspaper career at the Pine Bluff Daily Graphic in 1939. He worked at The Commercial Appeal in the early 1950s, first as a high-school sports writer, then as the newspaper’s promotions director.
“Henry started a kids’ fishing derby on a small park lake in Memphis as a newspaper promotion,” Joe Mosby remembers. “He was in charge of the derby every year, and as a result of that derby, his interest in fishing grew. When outdoors editor Frank Vestal left The Commercial Appeal, Henry became the outdoors editor.”
The fishing derby that now memorializes the long-time outdoors editor celebrated its 15th anniversary in May 2000. Among the oldest of its kind in the United States, the event was named the Henry S. Reynolds/Mid-South Junior Fishing Rodeo, in March 1988 at a retirement ceremony held in Henry’s honor. More than 200 people gathered that day to pay tribute to the man who had become known as “Mr. Outdoors of the Mid-South.” Governor Ned McWherter attended, one of Henry’s long-time hunting companions.
“Henry had a way of getting his message to his readers,” McWherter said. “I know he set me straight a few times,” referring to the time Henry and others convinced the governor to change his opinion on a controversial West Tennessee wetlands issue.
“At the time, I was on the wrong side of the issue,” McWherter said. “Henry convinced me I was wrong. Henry changed my mind about the way we should go about getting wetlands protection in the Obion River Basin. I changed, to Henry’s credit.”
Though he was serious when the situation called for it, Henry also had a fun side he couldn’t contain.
“He was well-known for his sense of humor,” said OWAA Past-President Cliff Shelby, who first met Henry in 1977. “He was always cheerful, a real spark plug for having a good time at OWAA conferences. Henry ran around at every conference with a little canned air horn, blowing it to tell everybody when another session was starting. And at the BASS Masters Classics, which he always attended, he had a reputation for always being first in the food line. Everyone thought it was funny. The doors would swing open for dinner and there was Henry, already at the head of the line. To him, it was a matter of gastronomical pride.”
Henry’s devotion to OWAA was unwavering. He served the organization in many capacities for more than 30 years. He stepped up as president at the Lake Charles, LA, conference in 1975, and received the Ham Brown Award in 1980, OWAA’s most precious recognition of a member “for devoted past service to the organization over a period of continuous years.”
“The remarkable thing about Henry,” said Shelby, “is nobody could ever characterize him as this or that. Some folks earn their reputation because they’re known as great bass fishermen, or superb elk hunters. They’re good at the specialties, and that’s how they made their name. Henry wasn’t like that. He was remarkable because of the tremendous variety of things he wrote about — kids’ fishing, coon hunting, bass tournaments, environmental issues — you name it. Henry wasn’t known for one thing; he was known for everything. He participated in it all so he could share it all with his readers.
“Most of all, Henry was a very professional newspaper man. That, I think, is how he’ll always be remembered. That’s the way he would want to be remembered.”
Keith Sutton, an Arkansas native, is the editor of Arkansas Wildlife, the conservation publication of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, editor of Sports Afield’s popular Almanac section and author of several books. He is a former past-president of the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association.