Jan/Feb 2019Still Wild After All These Years By Jim Casada
A journey through the years, and the pages, of South Carolina Wildlife magazine.
At some point in the early 1970s, not long after moving to the Palmetto State, I enjoyed my first exposure to South Carolina Wildlife (SCW). The setting was a fitting one, a local barber shop, where leafing through the magazine’s pages immediately took me back to boyhood days when a haircut carried a significant bonus in the form of being able to read columns and articles by sporting scribes such as Robert Ruark, Corey Ford, Jack O’Connor, Archibald Rutledge, Havilah Babcock and Ray Bergman in Field & Stream and Outdoor Life. These individuals were giants, true masters of their craft with an uncanny knack for taking readers to streams of dreams and fields of fascination. Over the last sixty-five years, albeit in a more confined and clearly defined geographical setting, editors and contributors to South Carolina Wildlife have wrought similar wonders with words.
Perhaps the simplest, most logical way to view the magazine’s unfolding saga is chronologically through the eyes and emphases of its editors. Collectively theirs has been an extended, ongoing exercise in heralding the Palmetto State’s natural history; taking detailed looks at the manner in which its abundance of fish and game beckon outdoor enthusiasts; providing vignettes of craftsmen whose productions touch wonders of the wild in myriad ways; tackling environmental issues; and venturing into delightful treks such as archaeology, profiles of notable conservationists, foodways, folkways and more.
The magazine’s first editor was, in the words of his successor, John Culler, “One of the sweetest, nicest guys you could imagine.” A University of South Carolina journalism graduate who worked for newspapers both before and after his service as an Army cryptographer in World War II, Eddie Finlay, with the creation of the S.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, became its secretary and chief of information and education. He served as South Carolina Wildlife magazine’s editor from the time it was first published in 1954, until his retirement sixteen years later.
Throughout his tenure, Finlay faced what was, in essence, an impossible challenge. His task was to educate South Carolinians about the opportunities the state offered hunters and anglers, tout the importance and professionalism of the agency’s wildlife law enforcement officers and somehow do so under stringent financial constraints. Subscriptions to the quarterly magazine were free. That meant the more subscribers Finlay obtained, the greater the budgetary impact.
The Editors of SCW
Eddie Finlay (1954 - 1970)
John Culler (1970 - 1979)
John Davis (1979 - 2002)
Linda Renshaw (2002 - 2006)
Caroline Foster (2006 - 2009)
David Lucas (2009 - 2016)
Joey Frazier (2016 - Present)
The magazine may not have prospered financially under Finlay - since it produced no subscription income, published no ads and labored under severe and uncertain monetary constraints - but it nonetheless progressed and found a solid niche in the minds of the state’s sportsmen. Those first fifteen years saw a publication without interior color, more biological details than the average reader wanted, an overabundance of profiles of high-level departmental personnel, as well as lots of “grip-and-grin” photographs of game and fish staff.
Offsetting those shortcomings was an editorial philosophy setting the tone and tenor for an unbroken record of journalistic excellence and success under Finlay’s successors. He began a trend, soon to be considerably expanded, of using artwork from nationally heralded wildlife artists and profiling skilled artists and craftsmen. Over the decade and a half of his editorship he gave readers a fuller appreciation of South Carolina’s sporting horn of plenty. Similarly, through sheer persistence he preached the gospel of sensible game regulations and protection of the natural world in a convincing fashion which educated and engaged readers.
The key measures of Finlay’s success come from his personality and his role as a pioneer. Anyone who has enjoyed the privilege of reading his book, Down the Creek with Eddie Finlay, a pleasing potpourri of newspaper columns along with his editorials and feature material from SCW, soon recognizes they are shaking literary hands with a genteel man who loved the outdoor world. An avid hunter and fisherman, Finlay was a bastion of common sense and solid public relations. In a workmanlike fashion, he laid the groundwork for a shining future.
The Soring Seventies
John Culler was next in line to take hold of the magazine’s editorial reins. For a decade, sometimes known in Wildlife Department circles as the “Soaring Seventies,” this tireless, highly creative individual, a flowing fountain of ideas, took the publication to undreamed heights of excellence. Reminiscing, Culler says, “At the outset, everything was a secret. I didn’t know how much money I had to work with, and since the magazine was free, there was a sort of hidden desire to avoid promoting it. New subscribers were a drain on resources.” Soon enough though, he instituted a tidal wave of changes - paid subscriptions, use of color in the magazine’s pages, the addition of Ted Borg as a full-time staff photographer and Sonny Baines as art director. Later, Culler increased the magazine’s frequency from quarterly to bi-monthly, added more freelance writers, artwork from some of America’s top wildlife artists and other innovations.
He laughingly describes some of his steps along the way. “I managed to get a surprising amount of top-drawer art from renowned figures such as Guy Coheleach and Larry Toschik by calling them and saying, ‘You are going to be our featured artist for the next issue.’ Mind you, the conversation also included news we couldn’t pay them, but I always emphasized the publicity value of appearing in a top-drawer publication.”
At breakneck, and sometimes budget-breaking speed, the magazine gained recognition for excellence reaching far beyond South Carolina. Initially, Culler wrote almost all of the material, but increasingly he turned to a stable of talented scribes as opposed to relying on his own efforts (which were in many cases, especially his Biosphere column, stellar). Subject matter took on added vibrancy, in-depth features became standard fare, traditional hook-and-bullet coverage expanded to encompass topics on varied aspects of the natural world, and Culler consistently brought a “shoot for the moon” attitude to his editorial oversight.
He eventually added three more photographers - Art Carter, Phillip Jones and Larry Cameron - to support Borg’s efforts. Their endeavors included obtaining images for general agency use, but work for the magazine always had top priority. Photo essays became integral parts of the editorial package, and national awards recognizing the magazine’s excellence poured into Columbia.
The wave of accolades included the magazine’s growing popularity, his 1973 naming as director of a new information and public affairs division, numerous national honors, and unwavering support from influential figures. These considerations served him and the magazine wonderfully well.
Culler, constantly seeking new challenges and ever plowing forward in headlong and sometimes headstrong fashion along new pathways, accomplished undeniable wonders with the magazine. In each of the final five years of his editorship, SCW was recognized by the Association for Conservation Information as the nation’s top wildlife publication. Increasingly though, Culler was restless for new worlds to conquer. In late summer 1979, he resigned to become editor of one of the nation’s best-known organs for sportsmen, Outdoor Life. Culler would later return to South Carolina and founded Sporting Classics magazine, which remains one of the most widely acclaimed publications in its field.
Four Fruitful Decades
With Culler’s departure to Outdoor Life and the big time in New York City, some of his staff and leading contributors accompanied him. One individual who did not was John Davis. As managing editor, Davis was already performing much of the magazine’s “in the trenches” work during the late 1970s, and he moved seamlessly into the editorial chair. Davis would be the first in a series of committed, highly competent and caring editors - the others being Linda Renshaw, Caroline Foster, David Lucas and Joey Frazier - who have shepherded the publication through its next four decades.
Interviews with these individuals, along with perusal of the magazines published under their watch, reveal a number of common threads in their editorial approach. Collectively those threads have formed a tapestry of excellence shared by readers every other month in an aesthetically appealing, informative and entertaining fashion.
I have been blessed, over the period of collective editorship represented by these five individuals, to be a frequent contributor to the magazine as well as writer of one entire issue devoted to the wildlife department’s history. Perhaps readers will indulge me in a bit of personal reflection as we take a walk back in time through 240 magazines; well over a thousand features; many thousands of striking photos; and countless short pieces, news items, essays and the like.
First and foremost, and this is a rarity in the world of freelance writing, SCW has consistently made me look better. My material has been tightened and brightened without muting my voice, and accompanying photographs or illustrations always provide pleasing eye appeal. Beyond that, merely mentioning some topics I’ve covered offers an index to the subject variety which gives the publication such wide appeal. At various junctures my pieces have dealt with persimmon, American chestnut and black walnut trees; foods from nature’s ample larder; cane pole and fly rod fishing; chronicles of the Catawba and Savannah rivers; mountain cur dogs; historic pieces on state parks and conservation milestones; turkey calls and turkey hunting; profiles of prominent sporting figures; pocket knives; traditional Duxbak attire; and much more.
Along with a host of other writers, among them Jim Mize with his rib-tickling humor pieces and Rob Simbeck’s carefully crafted For Wildlife Watchers column, thoughtful and insightful essays offered by the likes of Rick Leonardi and Roger Pinckney, Pat Robertson’s outdoor chronicles, and stellar works from department employees, I feel blessed to be part of a cohort of writers working in concert with skilled editors. Our common cause is to convey a genuine love of wide-ranging subject matter which somehow, some way, always has a link to the land.
Evidence of the close relationship between SCW’s editors and writers comes in comments from the former such as these:
Boy, we had so many really good, dedicated, talented people, both in the agency and outside. - John Davis
We assembled a wonderful stable of staff and freelancers who brought their own unique styles and perspectives to topics we knew were close to our readers’ hearts. - Linda Renshaw
So many amazing writers over the years. I felt starstruck to be working with this group. - Caroline Foster
It was a special pleasure to introduce some new voices. - David Lucas
Similarly, every editor had an especially warm place for something they had personally written, new writers they discovered or noteworthy innovations. For example, Davis feels special issues devoted to a single topic constituted a major milestone. Renshaw has warm memories of an article she wrote on canoeing and kayaking the Edisto River. Both Foster and Lucas take justifiable pride in bringing sparkling new contributing voices to the magazine’s pages. Especially revealing is the fact that all editors lavish praise on the photographic efforts of Ted Borg and Phillip Jones, clearly realizing that their work behind the lens meant a great deal to the overall appeal of the magazine.
Another aspect of the editors’ collective endeavors which stands out is that each, in their own distinctive way, loved their job no matter what difficulties they encountered along the way. Quoted snippets leave no doubt of their passion and sense of mission:
Publishing South Carolina Wildlife was an honor and privilege and something I will always treasure. - John Davis
Being involved with South Carolina Wildlife and working with incredibly gifted, talented people was like having a family. — Linda Renshaw
I loved working at the magazine because it offered me a unique opportunity to do something important and make a living. — Caroline Foster
I was basically living a dream, and when I told folks, “I’m the guy with the greatest job in state government,” I was dead serious. - David Lucas
It seems appropriate to note some of the identifying characteristics of the publication which have earned, for more than sixty-five years, a devoted readership. Cert-ainly illustrative excellence has to rank right at the top in this regard. As someone who peddles words for his livelihood, I’m periodically offended by the old chestnut suggesting “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but in this case it’s true. Over the decades, staff photographers and other magazine personnel have managed, with laudable consistency, to capture South Carolina’s beauty in a fashion which makes every issue, to use a book reviewers’ phrase, “a page turner.” Time and again, photos do more than merely utilize a camera’s functionality. We enjoy riveting images through photographers’ eyes for a setting or scene and knack for just the right framing, or patience and persistence to achieve proper lighting. It is also worth noting that this visual appeal attracts not only ordinary readers but camera bugs as well. Every year, the photo competition draws keen interest to this special issue of the magazine, and invariably the winning images are beguiling in their beauty.
Beyond visual splendor there has been a consistent theme of contributing to the betterment of South Carolinians through enhancing awareness of the natural world in which they live. Several editors tell of having had readers relate stories about how they were exposed to SCW as youngsters and had it open their eyes to hunting, fishing, nature, environmental issues, and in some cases, shape their careers. South Carolina Wildlife has been the voice, muted in terms of steering clear of political controversy, yet magical when it comes to celebrating our rich natural heritage and outdoor-related history, for all who cherish our environment and revel in the countless ways it enhances our lifestyles.
For three score and five years, the magazine has weathered tight budgets and market crashes, determinedly resisted the temptation to accept advertising, and considered its subscribers to be part of the family. Throughout those years, no matter who was the editor, SCW has, as John Davis puts it, “served as an advocate for wildlife, natural places and the outdoor heritage of our state and its citizens.” It has done so while consistently keeping readers abreast of issues related to the state’s natural resources and reminding them to love the land and fostering constant awareness that they live in a land which is truly lovely.
Print magazines sometimes seem passé in today’s world of electronic media, but in Linda Renshaw’s words, "South Carolina Wildlife readers still keep their back issues, and doctors’ offices still display copies.” The magazine has long been and remains a comforting reminder, as Caroline Foster puts it, that “this little corner of the South is a special place.” As a widely-traveled writer, someone honored to have been tangentially involved in SCW’s mission and message over the course of many years, and as a South Carolinian, I wholeheartedly agree.