The Granddaddy of Outdoor Writers
Journalist served as role model for writers and conservationists alike.
By Mike Cox
His full name was Leroy Adolph Wilke, but he was known to just about everyone but his sisters, wife and other family members simply as “L.A.” I called him Granddad.
Born in the long-vanished Travis County community of Waters Park in 1897, he got his first job as a printer’s devil, melting lead type in the “hell box” of an Austin job printer. Soon he learned how to set type, and while still a teenager, he opened his own printing business. When he got older he planned to become a preacher, but decided on the wider pulpit of journalism instead.
He reported for or edited newspapers in San Angelo, Big Lake, Dallas, Fort Worth, Irving, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Houston and El Paso during a career that extended into the late 1930s when he moved into chamber of commerce work.
At chambers of commerce or similar organizations in El Paso, Gainesville, Sweetwater and finally with the then-Abilene-based West Texas Chamber of Commerce, Wilke was an early proponent of good highways and Texas tourism. In speaking to civic clubs and other groups, he used to joke that “a tourist is a whole lot easier to pick than a bale of cotton.”
Wilke had taken his first photograph in 1914 and wrote his first freelance magazine story a couple of years later, selling a piece to the old Holland’s magazine. The editor paid him in postage stamps in lieu of money.
While Wilke as a newspaperman covered everything from police shootouts with bootleggers to the wild and woolly West Texas oil boom towns, he was also a pioneer Texas outdoor writer, churning out stories on hunting and fishing for a lot of magazines long since extinct. But he also wrote for Field and Steam and other national publications.
In 1957, after a brief stint of handling public relations work for Red Ball Motor Freight in Dallas, Wilke went to work as the assistant director of what was then known as Information and Education at the old Game and Fish Commission. In that capacity, he edited its magazine (now Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine) until he retired in 1962.
But there was more to Wilke than his long résumé. For one thing, he believed in wildlife conservation because he had seen firsthand the results of overhunting. Though a lifetime hunter, he did not kill his first deer until well into his adulthood. Not that he didn’t try, but Texas’ whitetail population had virtually been hunted out.
Same thing for turkeys.
Wilke liked to tell about a hunt that he and another Fort Worth reporter went on in the early 1920s. He and his friend drove in a Model T over unpaved roads from Cowtown to Junction in the Hill Country.
When they got to the ranch where they had been invited to hunt, they took a two-rut road to a spot on the South Llano River where they planned to set up camp. Driving up to a grove of trees near the river, they jumped a flock of wild turkeys.
Though Wilke was well into his 20s by this point, he had never seen a wild turkey. Full of testosterone and adrenaline, he and his pal piled out of that Tin Lizzie and opened up on those big birds with their 12 gauges, knocking down most of the flock.
Unfortunately, it was the day before opening day, and the bag limit sure wasn’t a whole flock. The landowner heard the shooting and said that while he didn’t mind that they had jumped the gun and killed a whole bunch of birds, the local game warden sure would if he happened to show up.
Not wanting to have any embarrassing discussions with a state officer, Wilke and his friend canceled their hunt and left immediately for Fort Worth with a Model T full of white meat.
Here’s the kicker: As Wilke matured and came to understand just how scarce those big birds had become in Texas, he grew increasingly ashamed of what he had done. As a form of self-punishment, he went nearly 40 years before he killed another wild turkey. He had opportunities but wanted to balance cosmic accounts. He finally ended his turkey hunting “fast” on the Y.O. Ranch near Mountain Home, where, thanks to conservation efforts, the Rio Grande turkey had finally become plentiful again.
That long-ago incident was the only time in his long life that he ever broke a game law, Wilke once confided. Or any other kind of law, for that matter. He continued to feel bad about slaughtering all those turkeys back in the 1920s for as long as he lived, which was until late 1984.
In addition to believing in wildlife conservation, Wilke believed in mentoring. In 1958, he used his influence with Charlie Green, then-editor of the Austin American-Statesman, to get Russell Tinsley hired as outdoor writer. As a tough newspaper city editor, Wilke had once fired Green when he was a young reporter, but they had become friends.
Wilke played a role in organizing the Texas Outdoor Writers Association (TOWA) in 1959 and offered mentoring to many writers and editors, including the late Curt Carpenter, who replaced Wilke as editor of Game and Fish magazine, the late Paul Hope, writer-photographer John Jefferson and others. The annually presented L.A. Wilke Award is now TOWA’s highest honor.