Very few people are natural-born outdoor writers. Most, like the late John O. Cartier of Ludington, Mich., worked hard to become skilled and prolific enough to be successful.
Cartier had been a hobby writer and joined OWAA in 1962 while a plant manager for Jackson Vibrators, a maker of on-track railroad maintenance equipment. In 1965, he accepted a full-time editorial position with Outdoor Life.
“I never looked back after taking this job,” he said years later. “I went from being a part-timer to an Outdoor Life staffer with many responsibilities in an eye blink.”
Make no mistake about it: Cartier was a hard taskmaster for stringers (myself included) who submitted monthly copy for the old Outdoor Life Yellow Pages. His craggy features and no-nonsense style meant nailing the story the first time, meeting deadlines and submitting better-than-average ideas for upcoming issues.
He was blunt and an in-your-face type. His knowledge of what the magazine needed was remarkable, his gift for profanity legendary. He figured writers could deal with his language or move on.
We teamed up on the 1979 Outdoor Life Guide to Fishing the Midwest and 1979 Guide to Hunting the Midwest. I was asked to edit the 1980 Guide to Fishing the Midwest. Our pairing was karma.
His recipe for success was succinct: “Know what you want, insist that writers do it your way and don’t accept excuses. Insist on writers getting copy to you before the deadline. Keep on top of them!”
It worked, and, with few minor problems, the magazine hit the newsstands with a great cover, a fine selection of timely articles and great photos. Furthermore, Cartier had taught me some valuable lessons.
The first time we met at his Ludington home was to plan the first fishing annual. He invited me for dinner and a meeting to discuss the upcoming magazine and its contents.
“Shoot pool much?” he asked, pointing to a pool table and grabbing a stick. I quickly chose a pool cue.
I didn’t shoot pool often and said so, noting I had not played in 10 years. A ghost of a smile creased his face, and he broke the first rack and sank two balls before missing. It was my turn.
I was on my game that day. I ran the table and racked the balls. Cartier was steamed. He studied me, and I wondered if winning was a wise career move.
He won the second game, and I took the third and knew he was hot. There was a strained silence over dinner, and after dessert he said, “I thought you said you hadn’t shot pool in 10 years.”
“It’s true,” I said, unapologetically. “It was a combination of old skills, good luck and how the balls were positioned. A wee bit of luck.”
“You shoot a good game of pool, and you write a good story and have fine editing skills; so let’s get started on this new magazine.”
We did, and that part of our careers became history. We met again after he retired, and he knew we were leading the self-publishing charge. He wanted to write three cookbooks.
We met often, at my home and his, and enjoyed each other’s company. We had much in common, perhaps more so than either of us realized, and we had dinners together. I introduced him to bow hunting and Lake Michigan Chinook salmon fishing, and Kay [Richey] and I stayed with Cartier and his wife on the nights before our annual salmon trips.
Cartier brought the same hard-nosed professionalism to writing Best Fish Ever and Best Venison Ever, two very successful cookbooks. Not simply recipe books, they provided solid advice on caring for fish or game in the field before a meal was prepared.
We spent a day fishing crappies two years ago, and he introduced me to his method of finding and catching crappies – a method I’d never seen before.
“There,” he said firmly. “That repays taking me Chinook salmon fishing. This trick works wherever crappies are found. I learned it years ago, and it has produced in many other locations around the country.”
We learned that John was ill, and Kay was helping him on a new book for his trilogy. It was titled Wild Game’s Double Bonanza: How to Get It & How to Cook It with Simple, High-Quality Ingredients.
He invited us to visit, and we discussed the new book. He knew he was sick, and he asked if we would complete this project if he could not. We promised to help bring his unfinished book to publication.
Two weeks later he was diagnosed with cancer, and he slipped away on June 19, 2003. John’s wife, Bernice, and his son, Jack, helped Kay and I put the finishing touches on the missing portion of the book.
Cartier, as well as our mutual mentor, the late Ben East, had been instrumental in teaching me how to ghostwrite stories 30 years ago. It was up to me to finish his book.
The book was published in 2004 and has been a rousing success. It is a final and lasting tribute to the legendary John Cartier, a man many writers misunderstood. He growled, roared and swore, but under that gruff exterior was a man who was greatly admired.
We had earned his respect. He may have shaken up other writers, but behind his occasional profane outbursts was a kind man.
John Cartier may be gone from this life, but because of our close affiliation over many years, he won’t be forgotten. He was the ultimate editor and outdoor writer, and if there is a way to measure writing perfection, Cartier’s name should be at the top of the list.
He taught us something else. A promise given is a promise kept.
David Richey has been an OWAA member since 1968 and lives in Buckley, Mich., with his wife Kay. Richey served three terms as an OWAA board member and was recipient of OWAA’s Ham Brown award in 1994 and OWAA’s Excellence in Craft award in 2003.