Leggett: A look back at 29 years in the Statesman’s wilderness

Pretty soon now, I’m going to do something I haven’t done in years. Decades in fact. I’m going to start buying my own shotgun shells. And fishing lures. And arrows and hunting permits and guide fees …

For the past 29 years, somebody at the American-Statesman has taken care of those transactions. But I’m retiring from my job here at the paper, so I’ll be paying for it, or at least dipping into the stash of 28 gauge shells that I’ve put away, thinking this day would eventually come.

This all happened pretty quickly. One day I wasn’t really planning to retire, though I’d sort of been thinking about it. The next day, I was turning in my laptop computer, saying goodbye to my friends here and joining a group of colleagues choosing to leave at the same time.

Now I’m saying goodbye to my friends out there, the people who’ve made this such a wild, exciting and sometimes frustrating two decades and nine years.

This job, as the outdoors writer at the Austin American-Statesman, has been my life and my family’s life since 1985. But lately I’ve begun to look around the newsroom and realize that I’m pretty much the oldest dinosaur in the yard.

It’s time to go. I’ll still be hunting and fishing and writing about it other places, but I’m 65 years old now, and this seems right.

I arrived at the American-Statesman from Houston with a passion for the outdoors, a bit of writing skill and no idea that I’d be here this long. Most journalists move around, and the Statesman would be my fifth job in 13 years in journalism. I’d always wanted this job so here I came.

Since arriving in Austin, my parents and my wife’s parents have died. Our son and two daughters have grown up and finished college and graduate school and – thank the Lord – gone off with their own spouses. Rana and I have seven grandchildren who we cherish, and I’m trying to teach them to love the outdoors as we do.

I can’t even count the people I’ve grown to know and love as friends through this job but it’s a bunch. Some of them will dance at my retirement party because they are happy for me. There will be some folks, including a few in state government, who will dance because I’m gone.

These are state folks charged with managing and protecting Texas’ natural resources, folks with whom I have had a kind of love/hate/adversarial/secret message relationship through the years. When news about what they were doing was neutral or good, our relationship was smooth and polite and reciprocal. When the news was controversial or negative, our relationship was jerky, strained and one-way.

It went back and forth. I needed them, and they needed me. It wasn’t always easy writing some of the controversial stories, and I know it couldn’t have been easy for them to read about themselves or their colleagues. But that’s just the nature of what we do at newspapers.

Through it all, I’ve honestly tried to speak truth to power and to stand for something even when it wasn’t a popular thing to do. Sometimes I wound up with people checking up on me, too, trying to find something in my private life they could use to stop me from writing stories that were embarrassing state officials or Parks and Wildlife big shots.

If they’d known how boring that was, they could have saved the money and travel expenses.

I’m probably proudest of a series of stories about a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department stocking scandal as well as a backroom-style state plan to sell off part of Big Bend Ranch State Park to private interests. Those reports caused the public to stand and fight and to demand changes in the way the state was doing business. They got those changes, too.

In one investigation, I uncovered some nasty business with canned hunts, which were being staged by people who kept caged exotic animals and, for a price, would release them in a confined area just so a trophy-seeking “hunter” could kill them. After those stories, new laws were enacted that made it illegal to do that, especially with species such as lions and leopards.

The people involved in the operations were extremely upset with those stories and vocal with me, and I admit I lost a little sleep along the way.

I remember being fearful in a rough section of Mexico City when I was researching stories about Mexican fighters coming to Texas to box because the safety regulations here were lax, and they could still make a buck for taking a beating, even if it killed them. In one case it did kill.

More recently, I remember feeling exhilarated when I was told police had finally found and arrested the driver of a boat involved in a long-unsolved and fatal hit-and-run lake accident that I had written about.

In the final analysis, this job has been more fun than anything else. For the most part, I’ve been able to do what I want, when I wanted. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I’ve always claimed that I’m just a poor old country boy trying to make a living, a guy from Carthage who happened to be standing in the right place at the right time when the Statesman came calling. This was the perfect job for me, and along the way, I’ve been able to enjoy and experience things that many only dream about.

I’ve been to Africa to hunt Cape buffalo and Alaska to pursue moose and caribou and 30-inch rainbow trout. I’ve caught giant peacock bass in Brazil and a group of 10 largemouth bass weighing 90 pounds in Mexico.

I’ve been afraid of giant brown bears and semi-charging elephants. I even let a rattlesnake bite me once to test some snake leggings. I survived. Not sure about the snake.

I’ve been cold and hot, wet and parched, windblown and very, very alone. I’ve felt insignificant beneath the night sky. I’ve stood in awe of nature. I’ve travelled every part of this great state from the Big Thicket in the east to the top of Texas in the west. I’ve walked on pristine, protected Gulf barrier islands, and I’ve imagined our predecessors while walking in places like Palo Duro canyon and the King Ranch.

I’ve exulted in a successful kill. And I’ve shed tears over some of those creatures.

I’ve killed enough doves that I should be embarrassed. But I’m not.

I love to hunt, and I love wildlife, and there’s no paradox in that for me.

I’ve seen deer hunting in Texas go from a rural experience where we recreated the times of our youth to a serious financial venture with trophies selling for $10,000 and more. I’ve seen bass fishing rise through corporate sponsorships into a competitive high-dollar sport.

I got to help trap wild sheep that were then moved into southwest Texas to re-establish the native Trans-Pecos desert bighorn population. A lot of my hunting friends will disagree, but I wish we could get the wolves back again, just so I could hear one howl in the wild before I die.

Finally, I wish I had something really profound to say, but I don’t think I do. I’ll just close with something I said to a gathering of my friends as I left the paper on the day I decided to close shop: “If you’ve never drunk beer in the parking lot on a Saturday night or made out in a darkroom, you’ve never worked at a newspaper.”

Now, beer is forbidden at the paper, and we don’t even have darkrooms any more.

It’s time for me to go.

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