Column: History of a column

Published 7:00 pm Thursday, December 27, 2007

By Staff
With the passing of another year, I find myself musing about this column. I can't remember exactly when I wrote the first one, but it seems like I've been doing it since God first made dirt. In thumbing through old clippings the oldest I found was 1996, though few were dated. I think that's pretty close, though – 1995 or 1996.
The roots of the column go back much further than that. For some 30 years Jack Mell wrote a hunting and fishing column for the Niles Daily Star and later Leader Publications, which publishes the Niles, Dowagiac, Edwardsburg and Cassopolis newspapers. Ironically, Jack was instrumental in my outdoor education. In 1966 and 1967 I took the conservation classes he taught at Dowagiac High School. Jack also taught me how to trap, taking me along while running his trap line on weekends.
When Jack finally decided to shelve his typewriter, Leader Publications asked me to take over. I have no idea why they picked me. I was an avid outdoorsman but had no writing experience. The specific mission was to give brief weekly hunting and fishing reports for the Cass and Berrien County area. That went well for a while. Every week I dutifully called the local conservation officers, sporting goods stores and bait shops for information, typed it up and dropped it off at the Dowagiac Daily News office. Yea, typed, I didn't even know how to turn a computer on.
Some days later the column would be published and therein laid the problem. The reports were a bunch of outdated information. Who cared where the fish were biting last week or who shot what buck a week ago? The wife kept urging me to write about other outdoor stuff, but I resisted. The powers that be had specifically stated hunting and fishing reports. Finally I gave in and snuck in a column on something else, I don't remember what, and there were no repercussions. I snuck in a few more at intervals and still nothing was said. Cool, the door appears to be wide open. Better yet, I was beginning to get compliments from people on the street and even a few atta-boy letters. The dreaded fishing reports were history. There was another problem, though. My allotted space was 400 words, which is not much to write anything of substance. I tried one at 450 words and nothing was said. I pushed it to 500, then 600 and got away with it, probably because letters and e-mails about the column were coming in every week, which is unusual for a simple newspaper column. I finally self imposed a limit of 700 words, which is just enough yet prevents me from being too wordy. The column also pushed me into the computer era. My first was an old, used dinosaur which served strictly as a word processor. I eventually got a real computer and sometime later even discovered the magical world of the Internet and e-mail.
A few years ago, the column went global when Leader Publications put it on the Internet. In addition to online friendships with many local readers, I regularly get e-mails from all over the world. A column on honeysuckle developed a pen pal relationship with a botanist in England. The bird flu topic brought in a flood of e-mails from professionals and amateurs all across Europe and even the Florida State Legislature. Most are complimentary or seeking more information. Some challenge my facts, which is a good thing as that keeps me from getting lazy and just winging it. Despite the column's wide spread following I still stay close to home by confining the topics to things pertinent, or at least of interest, to us here in Southwest Michigan. Other than occasional updates on things like West Nile Virus, out of the 600 or so columns so far very rarely has a subject been repeated. Here's a toast to many more to come. And remember, life is short so never forget to carpe diem.