By Bob Bell
I always think of Will Johns as the quiet man. He moved within a bubble of quietness that calmed everyone near him. Everyone waited for him to speak, and when he did, he spoke quietly and reasonably. Everyone listened, for what he said was always thoughtful and to the point.
Johns died on Feb. 19, 1982, a victim of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was only 59. Even after two decades, older OWAA members remember him well. From the early ’50s, he rarely missed a conference. He also was one of the founders of Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association (POWA), one of the largest state-based outdoor writer groups. He was POWA’s president early on, and at times held every position on its board.
Johns grew up in Maplewood, NJ. He was a good student and enjoyed football, baseball, swimming, stamp collecting and even banjo plunking, which he indulged in for the rest of his life. However, photography and writing drew his interest from grade school throughout adulthood. Fishing became a lifelong passion.
After high school graduation in 1940, Johns and several pals spent a month in the wild around Lake Huron — hiking, canoeing and fishing. That fall he enrolled at the University of Maine, studying forestry and wildlife conservation. World War II had already begun, and Johns joined the ROTC. In the summer of 1943, he was called to active duty; after being sent to Officers Candidate School at Fort Knox, KY, he was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant.
Earlier, in college, Johns had met coed Vivian Halsey, and in the summer of 1944 they married at Fort Benning, GA. In the fall, Johns shipped overseas in time for the invasion of Okinawa. Back in the United States, Vivian learned that she was pregnant, and in Sept. 1945, Patricia Alice was born. In 1946 Johns returned to New Jersey as a civilian, but still in the U.S. Army reserve.
He resumed his studies at the University of Maine, and soon they were expecting their second child. Johns graduated in 1947, but would not receive his diploma until he spent a summer living outdoors in the backwoods of Maine — a requirement then of all UM forestry majors. Thomas Halsey arrived before Johns fulfilled his time in the woods. In August he went to work for Pennsylvania Game News, the official monthly magazine of the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) in Harrisburg, PA. He hoped the job would let him use his interests in photography, writing, wildlife and conservation.
While their house in Hershey, PA, was being remodeled, Vivian and the children lived with Will’s parents in Jersey. Johns commuted most weekends. They were settled in their home by 1948, and they were involved in the Presbyterian Church. They were active in swimming, tennis, a bridge club, as well as fishing and camping.
Then the Game News editor retired and Johns was promoted to fill the position. Harv Roberts, the PGC’s chief of research, once commented that “Johns was an easy guy to work with — and a better fisherman than he was a shot.” (I learned later that Johns was adequate with both shotgun and rifle, but didn’t have the gift with them that he did with a fly rod.)
But Johns wasn’t paid to be a gun expert. He was editor of one of the country’s oldest state conservation magazines, the most influential link between the PGC and the state’s hunters.
In 1951 Johns was recalled to active duty for the Korean “police action.” In early 1952 he was a company commander and a staff officer in Army intelligence with the 3rd Infantry Division in Korea.
In one of his letters home, Johns wrote: “The terrain, climate, flora and fauna of Korea are almost identical to, say, that of Vermont. The rivers are much like the Kennebec, the Susquehanna, or the Raritan. … The ducks are winging north along the waterways.”
A soldier, but always an outdoorsman, a naturalist.
Back in the United States, wildlife artist Ned Smith was acting editor of Game News and the Johns family was having a house built in Hershey.
In late 1952, Johns was discharged and again editor. He, Vivian and the children were again a family. He was happy, and Vivian was pregnant again.
Joanne Marian arrived in September, and Johns excitedly handed out cigars. In 1961 he became Wildlife Education Specialist and editor/director of the American Association for Conservation. In 1964 he took the position of Tom Kimball’s assistant chief of the National Wildlife Federation’s Conservation — Education Division in Washington, D.C., a job that put him in frequent touch with members of Congress.
Again, Vivian told Johns she was pregnant. Their fourth and last child, Jennifer Marie, was born in March 1965. Three decades later, Jennie was to write “One Man’s Story,” a booklet about Johns that provided many of the facts for this article.
Homesick for Pennsylvania, the Johns family bought their third home in Hershey and moved home. Johns commuted on weekends. After 4 1/2 years with the National Wildlife Federation, Johns became the Pennsylvania Fish Commission’s chief of education and training, speaking and writing more than ever, always stressing conservation. His job required lots of travel, and there were always fishing and hunting trips to go on.
By the late 1970s, his three oldest children married and gone, Johns was tired of his job, frustrated by the inherent politics of it, and ready to wrap it up. But a close friend, Sam Slay maker, had an idea for a fishing program aimed at young people, and he wanted Johns’ help in getting it started. They named it PLAY, an acronym for Pennsylvania League of Angling Youth, and was an immediate award-winning success.
Johns’ comment to Tom Fegely while fishing for smallmouth in the Susquehanna, shortly before he died, demonstrated the program’s importance to him: “When I go,” Johns said, “I’d like most to be remembered for helping to start PLAY.”
Will Johns and Sam Slay maker are both long gone, but PLAY is still going strong. Johns, doubtless, is happy.
Bob Bell, of Mechanicsburg, PA, is a contributing editor for Gun Digest and Keystone Conservationist. Bell writes on arms, ammunition, scopes/mounts, large- and small-game hunting, camping and conservation. Bell has been a member of OWAA since 1967.