This legendary outdoors writer built a reputation on his straightforward style and strong opinions.
By Bob Hood
When I met Dan Klepper in 1968 at a Texas Outdoor Writers Association meeting at Eagle Lake, he already was famous for his opinions. For a dozen years he had been expressing them eloquently as the outdoor writer for the San Antonio Express-News. His matter-of-fact questioning of state and federal wildlife officials over outdoors issues had established Klepper as a no-nonsense investigative reporter, and his dramatic writings about his adventures, people and wildlife as he traveled throughout Texas and beyond had left countless readers spellbound.
Those first outdoor writer meetings were more social affairs than journalistic meetings of the minds. The “professionalism” was individually dispersed among the likes of Klepper, Ed Holder of the Port Arthur News, Roy Swann of the Corpus Christi Caller Times, George Kellam of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and John Thompson, formally of the Beaumont Enterprise with whom who I had recently teamed on the outdoors at the Star-Telegram.
Klepper, Kellam and Swann founded TOWA, said Thompson and Holder, and those first meetings actually were hunting and fishing trips geared toward having a good time rather than discussing important issues.
It didn’t take long, though, for Klepper to change the mood. Klepper demanded respect if for no other reason than the fact that he rarely got into an argument but often settled one simply by voicing his opinion. And it was under his guidance that the TOWA gatherings soon evolved into genuine professional meetings to address important outdoor issues.
“One thing anyone who has been a Texas Parks and Wildlife commissioner or employee for the past 40 years can attest to is that Klepper could be their best friend or their worst enemy,” recalled Thompson. “Whatever it was, Dan had an opinion about it and he wasn’t afraid to tell you what it was. His opinions and outlooks mirrored the common aspect of things. He didn’t try to gloss anything up.”
Barry Robinson was sports editor of the Express-News when Klepper took over the outdoors beat in the mid-1950s, a job Robinson said Klepper got because no one else wanted the beat. “He became the legend of South Texas and he was no doubt the best writer we had at the newspaper,” Robinson said.
Despite his straightforward approach to almost any outdoors issue, Klepper saw beyond the norm and was an advocate for changes when changes were overdue. One change involved the Texas state fish records.
Other than a 13 1/2-pound largemouth bass caught at Lake Medina in 1935 that was recognized at the time as a state record, there were no official listings. Klepper encouraged other TOWA writers to embark on a search-and-find mission to compile a list of all known catches that might be records.
It worked, and soon TOWA established the first official list of state fish records. But Klepper didn’t stop there. He later helped convince the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to accept full responsibility for recording and recognizing state record catches, using the TOWA list as a basis.
Underneath Klepper’s shield of seriousness was a layer of uncanny humor no one could forget. And he loved nicknames.
“He had a nickname for everyone,”said Thompson, whom Klepper called “Admiral””and vice versa.
“We were together on a press trip at Lake LBJ for the opening of a resort and I decided to try my hand at operating a sail boat,” Thompson recalled. “I flipped it over and they had to come rescue me. After that, Dan dubbed me ‘Admiral.’ Then a short while later we were in Florida and Dan was driving a boat when we hit a big wake and the boat turned over. After that, I started calling Klepper ‘Admiral,’ and from then on we both greeted each other with ‘Hi, Admiral.’ ‘Hi Admiral.’ ”
Klepper was a devout family man and he loved Texas, particularly the Southwest Texas brush country, the Hill Country and far West Texas. His writings taught you that. Countless outdoors enthusiasts with only an inkling of such grand places found pleasure in taking a road trip with Klepper, riding on his words to places they longed to experience. The cost of the ticket was the price of a newspaper. The depth of the experience was the depth of the person’s thoughts as Klepper carried each reader through the blackbrush, over the rugged juniper-covered hills and throughout the rock-thorn beauty of the Trans-Pecos.
It was in a rocky draw along the Dry Devil’s River in West Texas in the early 1970s where I learned more about another side of Klepper. I learned about his deep passion and compassion for the wildlife he wrote about.
On that day, a hunter had wounded a javelina. The javelina escaped into a narrow cave at the bottom of a draw and everyone gathered around the entrance. Klepper’s chin squared, as it often did when he was in thought and about to make a statement.
“We can’t leave him in there wounded,” Klepper said. In just seven words, Klepper had issued a challenge of responsibility no hunter should ever forget and one I certainly took to heart.
Looking first at Klepper, I asked, “Anyone got a flashlight and a .22?”
“I do,” Klepper said. “But they are in my truck. Ed (Holder) and I will go get them.”
Minutes later, Klepper and Holder arrived back at the mouth of the cave. Klepper not only had brought a flashlight and .22 revolver but also a handful of 5-ought hooks. But that was Klepper — always looking ahead.
“If you can’t reach him after you’ve finished the job,” Klepper said “we can tie these hooks to a stick and drag him out of the hole.”.
The .22, flashlight and hooks worked. I crawled into the hole, shot the javelina and pulled it out with the make-shift gaff Klepper had hastily rigged.
After the ordeal Klepper said little, which was not surprising. He just shook his head.
Later, I read about our hunt in Klepper’s story in the Express-News. He had all the details, even to the part about how crazy any person would have to be to crawl into a cave with a wounded javelina. But that was Klepper. He shot it to you straight, the way he saw it.
If there were any one thing that irked Klepper, it was what he called “pseudo-environmentalists” who demanded the closing of a park, river or wilderness area for the sake of protecting a particular species of grasshopper, minnow or other such creature.
Klepper often blasted such people orally and in print. He once told a friend that when he passed away he wanted his body to be cremated and his ashes spread across Lost Maples State Park. When asked why, Klepper responded with something like: “I just want to make those environmentalists mad one last time.”
Klepper’s passing in 1993 came about calmly in his sleep. He knew he was fighting a losing battle with cancer and already had helped his editor choose his successor at the Express-News. Indeed, he was always thinking ahead, but that’s just one part of the legacy of Dan Klepper that will long remain in the minds of those who knew him or read his words.