By Jim Low
By now, most of you know that one of the most powerful voices for conservation has fallen silent. Joel M. Vance, treasured friend and mentor to generations of outdoor communicators, died peacefully on Dec. 9. If I remember right, he was 86.
I am honored and daunted by having been asked to write a remembrance of Joel for MOC Talk. His career, like his personality, was outsized. It would take a book to do justice to his legacy. What I know best about Joel is how he affected me. So I’ll stick to that and trust that what I saw of Joel is representative of his life.
Like most of you, my first exposure to Joel came through the pages of the Missouri Conservationist. The one thing everyone recognized in Joel was his gift for humanizing any subject. It didn’t matter whether he was describing a quail hunt, profiling a citizen conservationist, explaining why Missouri needed a conservation sales tax or documenting his own misadventures. His prose always brimmed with the warmth and zest for life that were the hallmarks of his own personality. He had the rare gift of being able to “write funny,” as he put it. His humor emphasized human foibles and the slapstick aspect of outdoor misfortunes.
Joel’s contagious love of the outdoors and his insights into human nature earned him assignments from all the nation’s top outdoor magazines, not to mention the patronage of publishers. His lifetime literary output ran to the hundreds of thousands of news releases, magazine articles, monthly columns and books. If outdoor gear retailers had donated one ten-thousandth of one percent of sales that were traceable to Joel’s writing, he would have been a multi-millionaire. But acquiring wealth was not his top priority. He was born to tell stories and – after the love of his life, Marty, and their children – that’s what he lived for. Writing wasn’t merely a vocation or even a passion for him. It was akin to breathing. Decades after his “retirement,” he continued to entertain, inform and edify readers. Only the grave could still his restless pen.
My first in-person encounter with Joel occurred while I was attending his alma mater, the University of Missouri School of Journalism. I desperately wanted to work for the Conservation Department. To that end, I had earned a bachelor’s degree in wildlife management. But my grades in math, chemistry and physics guaranteed I would never get into a master’s program. I was good with words, so I decided that was my best chance of sneaking in the back door at MDC. One day after classes, I drove to Jefferson City and – unannounced – knocked on his office door.
Looking back, the most remarkable thing about that meeting is that he was there. Joel based his writing less on phone calls and interviews than on personal outdoor experience (a fact that occasionally caused consternation in MDC’s upper echelons). But he was in the office that day, and I introduced myself and told him I wanted to do what he did.
Dozens of established journalists would happily have sacrificed limbs to have Joel’s job. By comparison, I had little to offer, beyond passion and that wildlife degree. Looking at the scruffy wannabe writer in his guest chair, Joel might have decided he was too busy to spend an hour with me. But he didn’t. Instead, he took me under his wing. I came away from the meeting with solid career advice, and I kept in touch during the intervening years. A decade later, when Joel quit his job (predictably, over a matter of principle), I had the unimaginable good fortune to take up his mantle.
For all that, I was not particularly special. Go to Joel’s Facebook page and read the hundreds of comments following his death notice, and you will discover that he mentored scores of aspiring communicators over the years. Many of those adoring fans went on to become luminaries in their own rights. Joel wasn’t merely patient with young people who shared his passions. He became their friend, their mentor and promoter. He was as at ease and collegial with bashful 16-year-old admirers as he was with fellow outdoor legends.
Joel wasn’t perfect, but most of his faults also were among his most endearing traits. For example, he wore his heart on his sleeve to an extent that could be burdensome. When something offended his sense of right and wrong or threatened conservation progress, he was prone to jump into the fray with both feet. This trait cost him personally, when cowardly editors bent to advertiser pressure and refused to print his jeremiads or cancelled his columns.
Joel also was possessed of a boyish enthusiasm that could get him into trouble. Recognizing that most outdoorsmen fall short of Jack O’Connor and Lefty Kreh, he turned his own misadventures into self-deprecating grist for his literary mill. Nor did he ever lack for maladroit partners to augment his story files. Chief among his partners in slapstick comedy was his beloved quail-hunting partner, MDC’s late trout biologist Spencer Turner. Politically, they were an unlikely pair. Spence was staunchly conservative, the polar opposite of Joel’s politics. But Joel never let that interfere with their friendship. It was just one more way that Joel and Spence’s big spirits showed.
During Joel’s tenure with the Conservation Department, Missouri’s more than 400 newspapers eagerly published his weekly news release package, “All Outdoors,” because it never failed to entertain as well as inform their readers. He became a familiar and trusted presence in hundreds of thousands of homes where subscribers to Missouri Conservationist eagerly watched for his byline. The literary rapport he built with millions of readers came into play when he wrote the entire August 1975, issue of the Conservationist, explaining what the agency would do if voters approved the one-eighth of one percent sales tax for conservation. They did approve it, and the stable, dedicated financial foundation it provides to this day has made Missouri the envy of nature lovers the world over. Several U.S. presidents have left less significant legacies.
My fondest memories of Joel involve bluegrass music, single-malt scotch and marathon story-telling. I picture him now, reunited with Spence and guitar-picking friends who went before him to that big jam session in the sky. We’ll see you by and by, old friend.