History of Ohio Ducks Unlimited

by Don Smith, former Ohio DU state chairman

Originally known as Game Birds of America, Ducks Unlimited's origins trace back to the great dust bowl of the 1930's and its resulting loss of wetlands habitat. On the heels of those losses, a small group of duck hunters organized to raise money in the United States for wetlands conservation in Canada. In 1937, that group was incorporated as Ducks Unlimited.

Ohio Ducks Unlimited's presence is almost as old as that of Ducks Unlimited, Inc. Formed in 1938; Ohio Ducks Unlimited provided volunteer leadership for Ducks Unlimited in the state of Ohio for the purpose of raising funds for DU's conservation efforts. It also served as a visible presence for DU in Ohio. Ohio DU continues in those roles, as a voice for Ohio DU members and dedicated volunteers and as a conduit between the Ohio membership and the National organization.

Early Ohio Chapters

The Cleveland DU Committee was the first of the Ohio DU committees. In actuality, the State Committee and the Cleveland Committee were originally essentially one and the same. Ohio's first fiscal year netted some $1,400 for the ducks. By June 1940, there were a total of 4 committees – Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Lima. The Columbus Committee's first meeting was held at the location at which the Columbus Committee banquet is still held today; the Columbus Athletic Club. In 1944, Ohio DU contributed $3,500 toward DU's fund-raising total of $284,000 for the year; 111% of goal. In 1955, the mid-winter meetings of the Cleveland Committee and Cincinnati Committee, which had been organized by then, netted $2,500. The marquis auction item at the Cincinnati banquet was a goose-hunting trip to James Bay, Ontario. Just as today, Ohio DU volunteers in past years accepted speaking engagements and made other public appearances to promote wetlands conservation and DU. On May 20, 1958, then State Chairman and National Secretary Robert Cowen and fellow volunteer M.J. Fitzgerald spoke before the Lorain County Duck Hunters' Association. Ohio DU raised $1,500 at its annual banquet at the Cleveland University Club on January 29, 1959, while at its annual banquet on June 20, 1960; the Cleveland Committee raised $1,200 for the ducks. There were 500 attendees at that event!

Ohio and Ducks Unlimited Leaders

Ohio has a rich history with Ducks Unlimited. From almost the beginning, Ohio Ducks Unlimited members have been involved with Ducks Unlimited at the national level. Robert Cowen, President of North American Coal Company, held the position of Secretary of DU, Inc. from 1955 to 1960. In addition, he was Ohio DU State Chairman from 1955 to 1959. Tragically, Mr. Cowen was killed in a private plane crash near Allentown, Pennsylvania on May 8, 1962. In 1963, Ohio DU collected $15,000 to establish a Robert Cowen memorial project. The person who spearheaded that effort was Lee Howley, who was the Ohio DU State Chairman from 1965 until 1971, when he became President of DU, Inc., a position that he held through 1972. Mr. Howley was also a member of the Wildlife Council of the Ohio Division of Wildlife from 1981 to 1983, when he passed away. As with Robert Cowen, Lee Howley's contributions to wetlands and waterfowl were memorialized. In September 1999, then Ohio DU State Chairman Don Smith was among those who helped to dedicate the Lee Howley Memorial Project at Hullett Marsh, Ontario. The Hullett Marsh/Lee Howley Memorial Project, just east of Goderich, Ontario near Lake Huron, is a significant production area for ducks that migrate through Ohio every autumn and spring.

Mr. Cowen and Mr. Howley were not the only Ohio DU members who rose to national positions. Henry Schmidt of Cleveland was DU's President from 1965-1966. Interestingly enough, Mr. Schmidt also succeeded Mr. Cowen as President of North American Coal Company upon the latter's death. Also in 1965, Dale Whitesell became DU's third Executive Vice President. Prior to becoming Executive VP, Mr. Whitesell was the Chief of the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

Many fund-raising techniques that DU still uses today originated with Ohioans. During his tenure as Executive VP, Mr. Whitesell refined the banquet event system. Those refinements resulted in the banquet event system flourishing throughout DU, Inc. and its sister organizations, DU Canada and Ducks Unlimited de Mexico. In addition, the event system has been adopted by many other conservation and sportsmen's organizations. DU events are still responsible for a quarter of DU's financial support annually. Mr. Whitesell is also recognized as being the person who, in 1983, initiated DU's U.S. Habitat Program; a significant milestone in DU's history. That program has been responsible for 70,000 acres of habitat restoration in Ohio by DU and its partners and over 2,000,000 acres nationally. Even the always-popular Shotgun of the Year, offered at DU events across the country, finds its origins in Ohio. Keith Russell, Ohio DU State Chairman from 1972-1974, developed that idea, which still annually results in hundreds of thousand of dollars for wetlands.

Many of the first DU employees were from Ohio. In addition to Mr. Whitesell, Ohioan Kenneth McCreary was Executive Secretary from 1963 until 1992. E.J. "Buzz" Ruffing, who also hailed from Ohio, held various management positions, was one of the first Regional Directors and retired as Director of Special Projects. Don Thompson, an Ohio native, held several DU management positions, like Buzz Ruffing, was one of the very first Regional Directors and retired from the Southern Regional Office as Director of Conservation Programs. In 1995 former the Division of Wildlife Chief, Dick Pierce was hired when DU opened its Great Lakes/Atlantic Regional Office, was hired as the first Director of that office. Many other current DU employees hail from the Buckeye state, holding management and leadership positions in many divisions of the DU team, from National Headquarters, to DU's Governmental Affairs office in Washington D.C., to Regional Offices and Regional Director positions. It seems that one can hardly take a step in DU without bumping into another Buckeye.

Ed Moxley who served as the Ohio Chairman starting in the spring of 1983 through the spring of 1985. Then served as a Regional Vice President from 1986 through 1990. During his tenure as Regional Vice President he also served on the Ducks Unlimited, Inc. Board of Directors. From September 2004 to the present he has served as an American Director on the Ducks Unlimited Canada Board.

David Brunkhorst was the Ohio State Chairman from 1989 to 1991. Following his term as State Chairman he was nominated and elected as Regional Vice President from 1992 to 1994, and a Senior Flyway Vice President from 1994 to 1998. During his tenure as Regional and Senior Vice President he served on the DU, Inc. Board of Directors. From 1998 to present he has served on the Ducks Unlimited de Mexico Board.

Ohio Artists

Other Ohioans have made significant contributions to DU at the National level. Renowned Ohio artist John Ruthven was DU's first Artist of the Year.

Another highly gifted Ohio artist, Harold Roe of Sylvania, has repeated that honor twice. Harold is also a recent recipient of DU's Chisel and Pallet Award for the work he has done with Ducks Unlimited. DU has raised in excess of 15 million dollars by the sale of his artwork. Chris Walden from West Elkton is a recent recipient of DU's Silver Teal Award for his very generous donations to Ohio Ducks Unlimited. Adam Grimm, from Elyria, the youngest winner of the Federal Duck Stamp competition.

DU and Ohio DU remains indebted to those and other talented Ohio artists and other artisans for the millions of dollars that have been raised for the ducks through their generosity.

" />

Recent Times

Things have grown a bit for Ohio DU since 1938. From the original Cleveland based State Committee, we have grown into a State Committee that helps to coordinate and assist in the efforts of more than 1,400 dedicated committee volunteers and more than 75 committees across the state, with more committees forming all the time. Ohio DU membership has grown to some 15,000 members across the state. Ohio events now range in size from 85 to over 350 attendees. Any given event can result in from $10,000 to more than $60,000 net being raised for the ducks. Annual proceeds raised by dedicated Ohio DU volunteers have grown from $1,400 in 1938 to more than $1,000,000 for the ducks. At an average per acre cost of $250 for the habitat restoration that DU does, that latter figure represents more than 4,000 acres of additional habitat for which Ohio's DU members are responsible annually. Ohio DU works closely with DU biologists and the Ohio Division of Wildlife in the interest of restoring wetlands to Ohio. And the State Committee works closely with DU's Great Lakes/Atlantic Regional Office, National Headquarters and the National volunteer leadership to insure that the mission is met and interests are addressed. We think that Charles King, L.B. Divine, the first two Ohio DU State Chairmen, and the other founding members of Ohio DU would be proud of how their vision continues in others and how the passion for wetlands and waterfowl flourishes among today's Ohioans, just as it did in them more than six decades ago.

Past Ohio Ducks Unlimited State Chairpersons

Charles G. King Cleveland 1938-1941
L. B. Devine Cleveland 1941-1949
George Ritter Toledo 1950-1953
John G. Butler Cleveland 1953-1954
Robert Cowen Cleveland 1955-1959
Norman Amstutz Lima 1960-1961
John Hildt Cleveland 1962-1965
Lee C. Howley Cleveland 1965-1971
David G. Tilghman Cleveland 1971
Keith Russell Pepper Pike 1972-1974
James Kehres Cleveland 1974-1975
Frederick DeCamp Dayton 1976-1978
Roy Kohl Springfield 1978-1983
Edward Moxley Vickery 1983-1985
John Bennett Cambridge 1985-1987
Donald Kaatz North Ridgeville 1987-1989
David Brunkhorst Port Clinton 1989-1991
Gary Borchardt Castalia 1991-1993
John McMinn Cincinnati 1993-1995
John Rife Toledo 1995-1997
Jim Skogstrom Springfield 1997-1999
Donald L. Smith New Albany 1999-2001
Tony San Gregory Tiffin 2001-2002
Stephen F. Dey Waterville 2002-2005
Sidney Lark Toledo 2005-2006