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Scott Rall: Meeting great people makes one humble

Scott Rall

Daily Globe outdoors columnist 

I am just fresh off of a trip to Milwaukee, Wis., for the National Pheasants Forever Convention. It is exactly 873 miles round trip from my house.

This national gathering of hunters, bird dog enthusiasts and everything pheasants has been going on since 2001. The very first one was at the Hotel Sofitel in Bloomington. I remember it vividly as I had just picked up my dog from the surgeon at the Stillwater Veterinary Clinic. She had torn the ACL ligament in her hind leg and I thought at the time that this facility was the most experienced at this corrective surgery.

She walked into the hotel on only three legs and the fourth looked just awful. It was all shaved and sported an eight-inch incision that had been closed with about 20 stitches. I got lots of funny looks as I walked her through the packed lobby of this fancy hotel. She was the only dog in the place and when they told me no dogs, I told the desk clerk, “Take a look at that leg, do you really think I am going to let this dog sleep in the truck at zero degrees Fahrenheit for two days?”

The clerk gave me a funny look and I headed toward the elevator. She did just fine over the weekend but going in and out of the building in order for her to do her business was a hassle.

Pheasants Forever has had a national event almost every year since. They missed ‘02 and I think ‘04 but have had one every other year. I have not missed one yet. I am going to try to be like the people that have gone to the Super Bowl every year for decades.

I will have to see if my scheduling luck can hold up on this goal.

Almost every year I experience something special at these events. This year was no different. In addition to reacquainting with old friends that I have made at these events, I had the opportunity to meet and shake hands with Paul Ryan. As many of you remember he was a vice-presidential candidate the last go-around.

He was very personable. Later that evening he spoke about his youth growing up and hunting in Wisconsin as the main event speaker on Saturday night. It was not a lot different than the many other hunting stories you would hear from your family or friends.

The thing about this trip that will leave the longest lasting impression on me was the 30 minutes I spent with a couple in about their mid-60s. I knew who they were when they walked up but they had no idea who I was.

This couple has done more for the shooting sports world and conservation that any other couple I know. The folks were Larry and Brenda Potterfield. They own and operate a company called Midway USA. It is a shooting and gun accessories company and they have one of everything when it comes to the shooting sports. They have been very successful and are now very wealthy. The Potterfields business model is, “We want to operate the best-run and most respected company in America for the benefit of our customers.” Based on their success they must be right on track.

Larry and Brenda look and act just like any other hunter you might encounter. They are approachable and have no sense that they are better than anyone else. Larry explained to me that their company has been successful every year and that sales had increased steadily. They now donate 50 percent of all of their income annually to charities and non-profit entities.

Pheasants Forever was the recipient last weekend of $996,000 toward their Forever Shooting Sports Foundation. This foundation exists to expose youth to the shooting sports and allow them opportunities to participate in outdoor activities. The Potterfields donate to all of the national conservation organizations, but they are on record many times as saying that Pheasants Forever does a better job with their funds than any other. This is one of many sizable gifts that they have made to Pheasants Forever.

I thanked them sincerely for their generosity to Pheasants Forever’s youth programs and then he told me something that really caught me by surprise. Larry said that giving money is the easy part. He continued by saying that if you have lots of money you can give it away without much effort. He went on to say that the hard part was engaging/converting those dollars to actually affect youth across the country. He said that he could not touch 50,000 youth with his million dollars but that Pheasants Forever has done so in 2013 alone.

He spoke of the effort of Pheasants Forever volunteers and the time and effort they put forth to convert his donation into activities on the ground and praised the organization for the speed and efficiency in which they do it.

Pheasants Forever in combination with the Potterfields have helped fuel an explosion in high school trap teams across the nation. Only a few years ago Minnesota had 3-4 high school trap teams that operated pretty loosely. Now the number of teams in the state is over 200 and climbing. This has happened in only 36 months.

I cannot think of a better example of a donor and recipient working in better harmony to achieve the end result that both parties want. This explosion of the shooting sports excites me for many reasons but one stands out. When tens of thousands of kids are trained in the safe operation of a gun and enjoy the recreational shooting sports, there is more than a very good chance that some of those shooters will take up hunting.

Hunters are truly the only ones that passionately care about wildlife and wildlife habitat. We need more hunters to carry the torch of wildlife conservation. If this carry-over from recreation shooting to hunting takes place as I predict it will, it might very well reverse the trend of fewer hunters and fewer license purchases and it has the ability to so almost overnight.

Nobles County Pheasants Forever helped the Worthington Area High School trap team get started. We did so in the beginning by donating $1,500 per year for the first few years to help them get set up. After that we brought them into a Pheasants Forever fundraising opportunity by purchasing the raffle prizes. After individual contributions from our chapter committee members and the trap team’s efforts in the general public they raised a total of around $22,000. Because Pheasants Forever was connected to the Potterfields and their generous gifting, this $22,000 was matched with $66,000 to tally $88,000.

After continued fundraising by the local team they now have almost $100,000 in a shooting endowment for the sole benefit of the team. These dollars make available to the team about $5,000 annually for associated costs of operating the program. The endowment principal is never spent, so the income should last forever.

I was inspired by the generosity and humility of the Potterfields. Anticipating the future of high school trap shooting and understanding the relationship between Pheasants Forever and the Potterfields makes me believe that this might very well be one of the biggest turning points toward getting thousands more folks involved with protecting wild places and the creatures that live there.