Michigan’s “Great White Father” – Mort Neff

By Gordon Charles

When it comes to television personalities, the name Mort Neff continues to come up, despite the fact that he died Aug. 16, 1990, at age 87.

Few of his friends realize that his “Michigan Outdoors” TV show was something of an accident. He and Ben East had put their heads together and decided the time was right in 1951 for a program designed to inform the public about outdoor issues. East was planning to host the weekly program but drew on Neff’s experience in producing the popular, weekly “Sportsman’s Guide” on the radio.

At the time, I had just been discharged from my Army duties as an intercept operator with the 115th Signal Radio Intelligence Company. It was one of the most secretive assignments in World War II. That is when I was hired by radio station WTCM in Traverse City, Mich. Among my duties was spinning records, including the big 16-inch discs carrying Neff’s outdoor programs. Back then, only wire recorders were available, but Mort had no problem working out that puzzle.

Fascinated with electronics since a child, at age 12 Neff held a ham radio license and was among the first to receive the news that the Titanic had hit an iceberg and was sinking. He continued his education by getting degrees in electrical engineering and journalism.

Neff solved the problem of powering his wire recorder with batteries enclosed in a small wooden box, which went everywhere with him on his outdoor trips. Fishermen were startled but pleased when his canoe would drift silently toward them then stop for an interview for his radio program. In 1946, he got a pilot’s license and his own plane. Equipping it with skis in winter, he landed on frozen lakes to interview ice fishermen.

When East approached him with the idea that the two of them produce the new, weekly “Michigan Outdoors” TV program, Neff eagerly accepted. With the first show in the can and ready to broadcast, East got a jolt. A high-profile field editor for Outdoor Life, he was ordered to keep his magazine post or leave and do “Michigan Outdoors” instead.

Deciding the magazine might change its position, East asked Neff to emcee the show until he could return. It never happened. From 1951 until 1975, Neff became the producer and voice of the pioneering TV program. Since he was definitely qualified to become a member, Homer Circle sponsored him into OWAA in 1960. Prior to this, I had become well acquainted with Mort, mostly through meetings with the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association (MOWA), even though I also had been sponsored into OWAA by Don Gillies in 1954.

Mort often phoned me to obtain fishing reports in the northwestern part of Michigan. Knowing the power of his suggestions to sportsmen, I soon learned never to name a lake or stream unless it was large enough to provide fishing for 200-300 fisherman at a time. I had to take the same precautions when it came to revealing choice hunting spots. Instead, I only mentioned regions, because Mort was considered a dependable source for information. His average weekly audience was at least 2.5 million viewers, including many who felt his show was educational in all aspects of the outdoors.

During the time he produced “Michigan Outdoors,” Neff and his family lived in Birmingham, Mich., close to the Detroit area and its network of TV stations. He often was gone, however, seeking outdoor stories not only in all parts of Michigan but sometimes in states where OWAA was meeting. He frequently accompanied Len Barnes, editor of the AAA Michigan Living magazine, to much of Canada for its wealth of outdoor adventures. One place he really loved, though, was Chile, with the fabulous trout fishing it offered.

Although he was urged to seek one of the offices in OWAA, Neff felt he would be unable to devote the proper time at far-flung conference sites. Instead, he was faithful in attending MOWA conferences and eventually became president of that organization. At that time, I was his vice president but often had to take over for him when he was working on something else important.

He and I were close friends and often talked about a variety of things pertaining to the outdoors. One time he confided in me that his tinkering with electricity caused an unexpected crisis. At his Birmingham home, he had the usual fine landscaping of trees, shrubs and flowers. It was frustrating to him, however, when a neighbor across the street would let his dog out of the house every morning. The dog would head straight for Mort’s property, where it would lift his leg on a favorite bush by the house. Mort complained, but the dog’s owner turned a deaf ear to his protests. Meanwhile, the shrub was dying.

Finally tiring of the routine, Mort decided to do something about it. He strung bare wires around the shrub, attached one end to the wires then put the other end through the front window. Waiting, he watched the dog come across the street and, as usual, lift a leg. That is when Mort plugged the extension cord into an outlet.

Results were instant. The dog let out a yip and keeled over right in the front yard. Watching in horror, Mort later told me, “What have I done? What will people think of me killing a dog? What should I do with him?” While he was pondering the deed, the dog began to move then managed to stand up before heading back home. “That dog never did come back,” he said, adding, “but I sure as heck wouldn’t do that again!”

Among the most popular of MOWA members, Neff began to be known as the “Great White Father” by a number of us, calling attention to his prematurely white hair. (Most of us now have become “blonds,” too.) Actually, due to his popularity, Neff was invited to a powwow of the tribe of Ottawa Indians and taken in as an honorary member. It was probably where the “GWF” designation originated. At any rate, Mort took it all graciously.

In 1975, Neff decided it was time for him to retire from “Michigan Outdoors” and take it easy. He moved to Harbor Springs, Mich., and remarried. His wife, Maurine, was only a year older than his daughter, Joey, who had known her for many years. Mort and Maurine decided to start a new family, producing a son, Jaye, and another daughter, Sara, both now close to 30, while Joey is now 70, she told me recently.

Mort and his doctor were good friends, and one time when he went in for a routine physical, he was greeted, “Now don’t give me any complaints. At your age you’e not even supposed to be alive!”

Eventually, however, at age 87, Mort had a serious stroke and died 11 days later in Harbor Springs. His family followed his wishes and asked that any memorial contributions go to the nearby Camp Dagget Fund. It is a special camp for kids to learn all about the outdoors and was one of Mort’s favorite ventures.

“Michigan Outdoors” was continued by a number of other outdoor writers. Right now, it has become the trademark of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) in Lansing. It also is linked to MUCC’s longtime magazine, Michigan Out-of-Doors, where I also served as an editor for five years.

Even today, after Mort Neff has left us, his name is remembered by the multitudes who enjoyed his pioneering efforts.

An OWAA member since 1954, Gordon Charles is retired outdoors editor for the Traverse City Record-Eagle. He has been writing his column, “Outdoors with Gordie,” since 1952; it appears weekly in 15 newspapers. He lives with his wife Dorothy in Traverse City, Mich.

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