In 1955, Leonard Lee Rue III asked a friend with a talent in electronics to build a speed light for him that flashed 1/40,000 of a second. While this rate is common today, it was unheard of at the time. The light allowed Rue to capture flying squirrels in action at night. Natural History magazine ran the images first. Another 118 magazines, newspapers and books published them within a year. These are the images that Rue says established him as a wildlife photographer and launched his career on a national and international level.
By Rich Patterson
An intriguing man stood at the podium sharing stories of outdoor adventures in far-off lands. To this 15-year-old Boy Scout his photos and stories of encounters with bison, elk, towering mountains and surging geysers was a thrill that led to my career in the outdoors and outdoor writing.
For over 40 years Leonard Lee Rue III, a close personal friend of my parents, came annually to dinner before his always amazing presentations to the Scouts of Denville, New Jersey. I’m certain I wasn’t the only youngster he stirred to seek the world’s wild places and protect the beauty of our planet and the creatures it supports.
Now 91 years old, OWAA legend Rue has hardly slowed down. He continues to live on a 14 ½ acre woodland in rural Blairstown, New Jersey, about 20 miles from where he grew up tending cattle, trapping foxes and always observing nature. His fascination with the outdoors led to a career that took him to seven continents photographing wildlife and gathering material for the thousands of magazine articles and dozens of books he’s written over a seven-decade career.
Inspired by a book by Ernest Thompson Seton, and with a love for observing wildlife, Rue decided he wanted to become a wildlife photographer.
“When I was in high school during World War II students were asked what they’d like to do for a profession. I said wildlife photographer, even though it was impossible to buy a camera or film during the war,” he said.
Fortunately, cameras and film reappeared in the civilian market after the Japanese surrender and Rue emerged as one of the world’s best known wildlife photographers and outdoor writers.
First photo sales to newspapers, and then a sale about a year later in 1947 to Pennsylvania Game News, launched his career. By the 1960s ’70s and ’80s he was likely the most published wildlife photographer in the United States and possibly the world. He and his seven-member staff regularly turned out over 100,000 black and white photos annually to service 87 magazines. At least 1,800 of his photos appeared on magazine covers. He was a regular columnist in NRA publications, Deer and Deer Hunting and Outdoor Photographer magazines. He currently writes for Whitetail Times magazine.
“Lennie was probably the most prolific wildlife photographer in the world,” said George Harrison. “When I was editor of Pennsylvania Game News and later National Wildlife, there was a file cabinet containing 8×10 prints of virtually every wildlife subject, all by Leonard Lee Rue III. He would send prints to every wildlife magazine free of charge until they were published. It was so easy to go to the Rue file and immediately get the image you needed rather than calling photographers and waiting for a selection to arrive in the mail.”
Until recent years Rue traveled the country lecturing, taking photos and gathering material for books and articles. One trip to Denali National Park in 1991was especially memorable.
“I was along the road taking pictures when a blonde woman with well-worn hiking boots appeared,” he said. Rue married, the woman, Ursula, in 1996. Uschi, as she’s known, is an active business partner, especially helping him transition into the computer and digital age. So close is their partnership that he remarked, “we are one person in two bodies.”
Rue made many technological transitions during his long career in outdoor communications. He may be best known for his black and white photographs, but as technology advanced, his work transitioned into color and eventually digital photography. From 1988-2006 Rue exclusively shot thousands of hours of professional video stock footage.
He wrote his early books and articles in longhand. Today he spends about four hours each morning at his computer and is currently working on a book on bears and a series of books for young readers.
Rue joined OWAA in 1966 and attended numerous conferences. He received the Excellence in Craft award in 1987 and was inducted into the Circle of Chiefs in 1997. He’s attended many conferences.
Although he dropped out of high school to work on the family farm during World War II, Rue received an honorary doctorate in wildlife science from Colorado State University in 1990.
“Colorado State told me that they awarded the honorary degree because I had educated more people about wildlife than all their professors combined,” he said.
It is easy to quantify Rue’s amazing publishing success, but perhaps more important and certainly impossible to measure, is the positive impact he had on conservation in America. He brought nature into the living rooms of millions of Americans, always encouraging them to enjoy and protect wildlife and to travel to beautiful natural areas. He’s also stimulated many youngsters to embark on lifelong nature hobbies and careers.
To see Rue’s work, visit www.ruewildlifephotos.com.
New Jersey native Rich Patterson has known Lennie Rue for 52 years. Patterson served 39 years as executive director of privately funded nature centers and sold his first freelance outdoor article in 1971. He is an OWAA past president and member of the Circle of Chiefs.