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Saturday, December 4, 2021

Living his dream

By Kathy Tretter

An article in the golden year anniversary edition of Bowhunter Magazine, entitled “One Last Hunt with Dr. Chuck”, begins like this:

“Early morning December sunlight glinting on moving antlers snags my attention. A handsome wide and tall-tined eight pointer, with curving beams and tips that nearly touch, is just stepping into view atop the wooded rise that slopes gently into the brushy creek bottom behind me.”

The author?

None other than Bowhunter Magazine founder M.R. James.

James, whose first and middle initials stand for Marion Ray, is a legend in the world of bowhunting. He has hunted in every state save Hawaii. Using a bow and arrow, he has felled 21 of the 29 big game species in North America. He has shared his knowledge with all the greats in both the world of bowhunting and among many famous personages for whom bowhunting is a passion. He has written two books on the topic, as well as countless articles for the magazine he founded in 1971, and has even been recognized for his expertise as far from North America as Australia (even though he’s never visited that continent). And he lives in Perry County.

Were you a mite thrown by that last tidbit?

M.R. James keeps a rather low profile for a man who could probably be considered the Tom Hanks, Stephen King or Lebron James of the bowhunting world — in other words, a living legend.

And he lives in Perry County.

But that’s not where his journey began, although a lot transpired in the Hoosier state to shape his future.

James was born in Wabash County, Illinois, in the Mt. Carmel area. He spent a couple of years at Evansville College (now the University of Evansville), then quit to marry his sweetheart, Janet. He finished his bachelor’s degree in English at Oakland City College where he was editor of the school newspaper while simultaneously serving as sports editor for the Princeton Clarion.

After graduation he accepted a teaching position at Jac-cen Central and Delaware Township High School in Ripley County, and while there finished his masters at the University of St. Francis in Ft. Wayne. 

During his first year of teaching, “I got a call from my former editor who asked, ‘How would you like to be an industrial editor?’

“What’s that?” James inquired.

The job was for Whirlpool and would allow James to use his writing skills to craft in-house newsletters, press releases and other materials specific to Whirlpool.

“We had a couple of kids by then. I was making $5,200 a year and maybe another $500 for coaching.”

Although he had already signed his contract to teach the following year and had a summer job writing feature articles for the Kankakee Daily News, the salary would be twice what he was making, so he went to work for Whirlpool in LaPorte.

After a year at Whirlpool James was contacted by Magnavox in Ft. Wayne offering a similar position that was even more lucrative. He would be responsible for communications including weekly newsletters, a monthly magazine and more, for plants in Ft. Wayne, Urbana, Illinois, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Torrence, California. The year was 1970 and the offer was one he could not reasonably pass up.

M.R. James says his father was not a hunter, he worked hard and the only time father and son hunted was a goose hunt in Cairo, Illinois where M.R. shot his first goose in the early 1950s.

However, the sport he fell completely in love with was bow hunting.

He loved it so much he started an Archery Club with fellow employees at Magnavox. His newsletters were such a hit the four founders who started the club decided to incorporate a non-profit called Blue J Inc. in January of 1971. It proved to be the start of something big when they decided a magazine dedicated to the sport might be popular. 

The premiere issue of Bowhunter Magazine rolled off the presses in August — 50 years and two months ago.

James and his cohorts worked for the government and industrial division of Magnavox, where top secret government information was kept under lock and key and security was tight, yet the company was good about their employees’ side gig. Seven or eight years in, with the magazine doing amazingly well, James tendered his resignation but the company didn’t want to part ways, so they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, keeping him on part time with full benefits.

And, they gave him access to the company’s graphic arts department.

When it was time for the foursome to get an issue to the press they cut them some slack.

Bowhunter Magazine started out at 48 pages, but within six years it was averaging 120 to 160 pages and bringing in over $1 million in ad revenue, not to mention subscriptions. “We didn’t have to solicit advertising, people just called to advertise.”

Paid circulation peaked at around 250,000 with a total readership of over half a million. 

None of the four took salaries from the magazine because they all had good jobs.

Talk about kismet! Four guys loved bowhunting, possessed the talent to both hunt and create a magazine about it, just as bowhunting took off as a beloved sport. While there existed magazines about archery, they included all arms of the sport, including Olympic archery, but Bowhunter Magazine was the first completely devoted to hunting.

The content was (and still is) first rate.

It should be no surprise that a publishing company would come calling with a desire to acquire this very lucrative magazine.

They did, in 1988. “We couldn’t say no.”

But James told the buyers, “We can sell you the building and equipment,” {although they jobbed out the printing]. “We can sell you the inventory, but Bowhunter Magazine is right here,” James recalls, tapping his noggin. “If you want the same magazine you’re going to have to hire me.”

At this point, M.R. and Janet’s middle son was studying at the University of Montana on a wrestling scholarship and he told his parents he would be staying in the western state after graduation.

The new owners of the magazine agreed to hire James with the codicil, “Don’t bother me during hunting season,” and he and his wife relocated to Montana, buying a small ranch in the Flathead area.

The stories James shares could fill a book. In fact he has already filled two, Hunting The Dream, a Memoir by M.R. James and Bowhunting Gospel from the Book of M.R. James — both available on amazon.com and from other booksellers.

So this is pretty much M.R. James’ back story and in no way explains how he acquired 150 or so acres in Perry County or how he became so proficient in the sport that he is, in fact, a living legend for bow hunters, so this story moves forward to part two.

* * * * *

A tour through M.R. and Janet’s home is a little like a trip through a North American wildlife museum, with moose, deer, bear, musk ox and a wealth of other taxidermied creatures adorning the walls or standing on two (or four) legs in incredibly life-like poses. Within those beautiful walls, however, so much more can be found, including accolades for James from everywhere, trophies, honors and mementos.

Take, for instance, the photo on the wall of M.R. with his old hunting buddy Ted Nugent.

Yes, that Ted Nugent.

The Ted Nugent who gained fame with his hit “Cat Scratch Fever”— an American singer-songwriter, guitarist, and activist. 

M.R., however, is far more animated when talking about the musk ox he tracked [and shot] in the Northwest Territories with an Inuit guide. They trekked 100 miles across ice in -15º weather wearing the same type of outerwear used by mountain climbers scaling Everest. During the hunt the temp shot below -25º with five mile per hour winds and while the outerwear was relatively warm, the minute he removed his gloves his hands would go numb.

Then there was the bear hunt in Canada, and the hunt with musician Blake Shelton or the caribou hunted in Newfoundland or …

Again, his adventures would fill several volumes.

M.R. James explains the intricacies of one of his 50 or so bows. Most are incredible works of art.

James does not know how many bows he owns, he guesses around 50. While a compound bow is much easier to wield, he loves the challenge of a regular bow and some of his are real beauties. He also prefers the challenge of getting up close and personal with his quarry. “I like to get within 15 or 20 yards and get off a shot without them knowing it,” he explains.

He always take a couple of cameras along to capture photos of his surroundings and anything else that catches his eye. “Over spring and summer [when he wasn’t hunting] I probably took 5,000 photos of deer.” He puts them up on his facebook page and/or website, MRJamesBowhunter.

So how did he get so enamored with bowhunting?

The answer is a bit unclear, but he began in his youth and virtually has not stopped since. He started with a bow in high school, learning along with two friends.

James does not totally eschew hunting with a rifle. He loves waterfowl hunting (geese, wild turkey, pheasant, grouse) and for these he uses a shotgun. But for all the big game species he favors his bow and arrow.

M.R James is completely animated while sharing tales of his amazing hunts and how he founded Bowhunter Magazine 50 years ago.

He got to know Fred Bear, one of the fathers of the sport, back in 1972. “He is a legend!” James enthuses.

He rhapsodizes about Chuck Adams, the first bowhunter to kill all species from North America, which at the time was 28, not 29.

James is a member of the exclusive Pope and Young Club, founded in memory of Dr. Saxon Pope and his friend, Arthur Young. Pope wrote two books in the 1920s and is considered the father of modern bowhunting. James is in possession of a 1928 signed edition of Hunting With Bow and Arrow. It took James five years to advance in the club as qualifying is based on the number and size of animals taken. He later became an official club measurer and is now a senior member.

He also feels an affinity for Roy Case, who was responsible for creating a bow hunting only season in Wisconsin on January 6, 1930, that led to bow seasons being established in the other states rather than sharing with gun season. Case was also the man who coined the term “bowhunter”. Since M.R. was born January 6, 1940, he feels another connection to Case.

In addition to Pope and Young, James counts Olympic swimmer Art Young as a mover and shaker in progressing the sport. In 1924 Young put together a movie of Alaskan adventures that featured heavily on bowhunting.

James was inducted into the Archery Hall of Fame, with headquarters in the Springfield, Missouri Bass Pro Shop, which also contains a museum. He served on the hall of fame’s board of directors, as well as several terms as president.

He retired from the magazine in 2006, but not from bowhunting.

M.R. and Janet decided to return to Indiana where six of their eight grandchildren live. For awhile they stayed in Evansville, until they purchased 150 acres from the owner of the Mary Rose Herb Farm and built their house on Cattail Road.

So many more stories could be told, but alas, this is a newspaper, not a book, so just one more.

A photo on the wall shows M.R. and Janet with actor Nicholas Cage.

James explains Will Jimeno was one of two New York Port Authority officers pulled alive from the rubble at the World Trade Center following the collapse on September 11, 2001. Jimeno almost took the day off to go hunting but instead reported to work.

M.R. James wrote an article entitled “From the Rubble” about Jimeno and Paramount used it as the basis for the 2006 movie World Trade Center. Cage played Jimeno’s sergeant. Paramount invited the couple to the New York premiere.

But to be honest, M.R. James is far more excited when he talks about the buck he shot in 1963 and enthuses about recurve bows vs compound — the mark of a true bowman!

Later this month, Bowhunter Magazine TV will be shooting a feature on M.R. James so readers might want to check their TV schedules and catch a bit more on the life and times of M.R. James, definitely a legend in his field.

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