“SEE YOU IN THE SPRING!”
No book about Fred Bear could be complete without mentioning the man who probably had the most to do, next to Fred, with the growth of Bear Archery during the 60s, 70s and early 80s. That man was Robert Fenton Kelly. Most of us who knew and worked with him always simply called him Kelly; I don’t think in my 30 years of knowing him that I ever called him Bob. And he always called most of us by our last names as well. It got to be a joke with our bowhunting buddy, Gordon Ford, after awhile. I can remember him saying one day out in Nebraska, “Don’t you guys know one another’s first names?”
Fred met Kelly when Fred made his second hunt at the Little Delta camp in 1959. The camp was located 100 miles from Fairbanks in the Grubstake Area of Alaska alongside the west fork of the Little Delta River. Glenn St. Charles had found the area in 1957 and worked hard with two other fellows to build a landing strip on a gravel bar in the river that could be used by Super Cubs. He told Fred about it, and the two hunted out of the old trapper’s cabin on the site in 1958 along with a number of other bowhunters out of Seattle and Bud Gray, the president of Whirlpool Corporation in St. Joseph, Michigan. The cabin had been built by Russian trappers in 1927. It had an earthen roof over strips of birch bark laid on half-round timbers. Willows had taken root on the roof.
Fred enjoyed the area so much that he decided to make it his base for a bowhunt the next year as well. Glenn St. Charles hired Bob Kelly to serve as the camp roustabout and camp cook. Kelly ran a television repair shop in Seattle at the time and was an avid bowhunter. He and Glenn and two other bowhunters had built a cedar shake cabin in 1951 in the Nason Creek area of Washington State along the migration route of big mule deer out of the Cascade Mountains up into Canada. They called it the chalet and hunted out of it for many years. After he died, Jeanie Kelly and I talked it over and called Ronnie Raume, who had been a boy when he hunted with the gang out of the chalet, and another nearby cabin they called the fort, that he had helped build. Ronnie returned Kelly’s ashes to the area after I had done the eulogy at his funeral in Florida.
A BRIDGE FOR BOWHUNTING
Kelly impressed Fred with his enthusiasm and hard work around camp, always doing what needed to be done before anyone else had even thought of it. The two bowhunted together and became instant friends. One of the best-known photos taken during Fred’s long bowhunting career shows Fred and Kelly crossing the Little Delta River on a homemade “bridge” the gang had constructed due to the high water that year that made it impossible to wade across the river in the usual hip boots worn in much of Alaska. I can’t begin to tell you how often I used that photo in our advertising and catalog work, but it got to be so well-known that an outdoor writer even wrote a column about it. Here’s the column that Terry Koper wrote about it in the Milwaukee Sentinel when Fred visited the area to talk to a group of archers:
The instant my eye settles on the men stepping up the primitive bridge, my feet start following in their footsteps. It happens every time. We must be in Alaska. We must be. It’s just that kind of picture.
Fred Bear’s form is easily identified as he crosses the river. Who else would be wearing that hat and carrying a bow? There’s another man behind him. He is carrying a bow, and his back is bent a little under the strain of a pack. He must be me. It’s just that kind of a picture. Whenever I see it I’m off on another adventure.
“That picture was taken in Alaska, back in 1959,” Bear said.
Fred and I were talking. I wish it had been around a campfire in Alaska, but we were sitting on folding chairs, in a maintenance room at the Waukesha County Expo Center. In the main halls hundreds of bowhunters were browsing through the bows and clothes and gadgets, waiting for Fred’s presentation.
“We built that bridge to get across the Little Delta River,” Bear said. “It took us about two days to build it, but it worked pretty well for the whole hunt.”
The picture captures Bear breaking trail on another of the adventurous trips that have made his name synonymous with back-country big game bowhunting. Behind Bear was Bob Kelly, who’d been hired to cook and carry, and later became an executive of Bear Archery.
Fred has forgotten who took the picture. For years even the picture was forgotten, until Dick Lattimer, the company promotion manager, found it in a file. When his eyes settled on the men crossing the river, his feet automatically followed behind the hunters.
“This picture is the essence of bowhunting,” Lattimer said.
So in the early 1970s, Lattimer began using the picture in company catalogs. Later it found its way into magazine ads and in 1974 was used as the cover for a reprint of Saxton Pope’s book, “Hunting With the Bow and Arrow.”
I know I’m not really in this picture, but it doesn’t matter. Each time I see it I feel the live spruce boughs bending and bouncing with our weight.
It is August in Alaska. It gets cold at night, but during the day the sun is hot enough to melt the glacier. It sends the icy water roaring down the river, making it impossible to cross in hip boots, as the hunters had done the year before.
Somehow I suspected all this before, but now I know for sure, because Fred Bear told me. And even though he told me the spring flood washed the bridge away 25 years ago, it doesn’t matter.
Thousands of bowhunters still use it. The bridge crosses the gap between the reality of the hunts they have at hand, and the fantasy of the ones they’ll only make in their minds.
KELLY COMES TO WORK
A short time after meeting Fred on the Little Delta hunt, Kelly went to work for West Coast Engineering and gave up his television repair business so he could work full-time in the sport he loved. While working on the West Coast, he sold people on the idea of automated indoor archery lanes and did such a good job of it that Fred soon asked him to join Bear Archery in Grayling as its sales manager. This he did in 1963.
Kelly was a riverboat gambler as far as trying new ideas and products, and he reveled in that image and even wore an Eddie Bauer riverboat gambler hat most of the time I knew him. But he did not just blindly go off and try new things. He thought them through carefully, got lots of opinions from us all, and then moved forward when he was sure it was a workable idea or product. As far as new products were concerned, he would send test ideas out to selected people in the industry to have them evaluate and use them and report back to us.
Bob Kelly had an intuitive feel for what needed to be done to capture market share, and building on Fred’s skill as an innovator and promotional genius, he and the marketing team he assembled in Grayling built Bear Archery into the number one company in the industry during my years with them. At the time I joined the two men in 1966, Bear Archery was second to Ben Pearson in sales and closing. As a result of Kelly and Tom Blee’s marketing savvy, our strong emphasis on advertising and sales promotion, and Fred’s national publicity, media exposure, and standing among the nation’s hunters we were soon able to overtake Pearson. By then other companies had come along, and we slid into a new era in archery-compound bow manufacturing. Ben Pearson Archery never fully recovered.
Kelly was the man who took the Bear brand name to the nation’s mass merchants, thereby bringing our sport to millions of additional prospects throughout the country at a time in the 60s when that niche of retailing was just moving into its prime. Of course, this did not ingratiate Bear Archery to its existing “mom and pop” cadre of small archery shops; however, it was an inevitable move for our sport and soon mushroomed our sales from $4 million to about $25 million by the time Kelly left the company. And the other archery companies soon followed suit by going after mass merchant business. At one point 40 percent of our business went through mass merchants.
Kelly also made missionary trips to Germany, Japan and Russia selling the idea of Bear Archery products, and archery and bowhunting in general. In 1975 our in-house staff and I even produced Bear Archery catalogs in French, German, and Japanese, in addition to our English language version to help support those sales trips Kelly made overseas.
ACCORDING TO KELLY
Kelly had many famous expressions that always set Fred and the rest of us to chuckling, some of which I can’t put into print in this family book, but one “R” rated one, in particular, that I heard him use often when someone would try to put something past him was, “Don’t try to shit this old Irishman, he’s got a turd in both pockets.”
Here are some more:
“You people are running around like a bunch of old women spreading
manure!” (That one was to try to get us refocused on a problem or opportunity.)
“That’s like pushing a rabbit out of a hole with a rope.”
“Anyone who would do that would push little chickens in the crick.”
“Finer than a frog hair split seven ways! ”
“Like trying to put an oyster into a parking meter.”
“That tastes like your foot’s asleep.”
“He’s blowing smoke up your arse like a four-stacker going out to sea.”
“Quicker than a spurt of duck shit.”
“Slicker than snot on a doorknob.”
“Your arse is grass and I’m the lawnmower.”
“Happy as a dead pig in the sunshine.”
“Prettier than 40 acres of red hogs.”
“I saw three deer and 10 saw me.”
“Big enough to hunt bear with a buggy whip.”
Upon tasting your best culinary effort: “What do you think’s wrong with it?”
After a big meal: “Somethin’ spoiled my appetite.”
Black coffee: “I’ll take it barefooted.”
When asked if he wanted water in a restaurant: “I’m thirsty, not dirty.”
He called kids “Gravysloppers” and “Curtain Climbers.”
About certain people: “He’d complain if you hung him with a new rope.”
And a cemetery was a “Marble Orchard.”
“See you in the spring” (His trademark goodbye, the sign-off on all of his Bear Archery correspondence. Referring to the fact that road salesmen often couldn’t see their dealers in the winter.)
That’s the kind of thing that was heard around the Bear Archery office nearly every day and always made Fred chuckle. And it always threw oil on troubled waters during difficult times when Kelly would suddenly express one of these and other colorful sayings, especially during a time of tension. He was a master at using these colorful sayings, one of the reasons Fred liked him so much. Kelly’s small office cubicle was right outside Fred’s office in Grayling. And right next to it in Gainesville. So the two of them had lots of opportunities to talk each day.
A STRAIGHT SHOOTER
One of the sayings I mentioned above refers to Kelly’s attempt with humor to get us to refocus on a problem, or to help us see it clearly. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times early in our relationship when I would take a piece of advertising ad copy or a sales promotional letter I had written over to him. He’d read it carefully, then tell me to pick out the most important points I was trying to get across in the material. He insisted these be put in bullet points at the beginning of each piece.
“Lots of people won’t take the time to read this crap, Lattimer, but if you bullet highlight your main points at the top they’ll probably read at least those and remember them.” I lived off that important copywriting tip for the next 30 years!
In 1968 Kelly was promoted to vice president of marketing, and in 1974 Fred selected him to be the executive vice president of Bear Archery at age 57. He later moved up to take over the president’s title when Fred decided to step down.
A few people in our industry didn’t like Kelly because he could be so outspoken and blunt at times in industry meetings. But he was almost always correct in the points he was trying to make by cutting through the meandering points being made by others. He knew better than anyone I know how to “cut to the chase.” Joe Johnston of Easton Aluminum was another old friend of ours who was very active in the industry in those days. If there were two companies who had a real commitment to the good of the sport and put up their money to prove it over many decades, they were Bear Archery and Easton Aluminum. Between Bob Kelly and Joe Johnston, they kept the industry leaders on their toes and pointed in the right direction.
After Kelly retired from Bear Archery, he continued his activity in the Gainesville Rotary Club and started the Bob Kelly Wild Game Feast, an annual event drawing crowds of local politicians, good-old-boy hunters, wives and friends. Every kind of exotic game found in Florida, including the old standbys of venison, rattlesnake, armadillo and gator tail are featured. It continues to this day, long after he left us. Just this year they had more than 2,000 people attend the 20th Annual Robert F. Kelly Wild Game Feast. Over the past two decades, the Wild Game Feast has raised more than $1 million, the majority of which has been put back into the community in such projects as trailers for Habitat for Humanity crews, and a computer center and teen center for the Boy’s and Girl’s Clubs of Alachua County.
Bob Kelly died in 1993, and at his funeral we had a large copy of the Little Delta bridge photo of he and Fred next to his urn along with his hunting hat he had on in the photo. At the request of the family it was my honor to do the eulogy at his funeral.
Later, in 1997, it was my melancholy pleasure to be the presenter when Bob Kelly was inducted posthumously into the Archery Hall of Fame. Margee Rymal, Jeanie Kelly’s cousin, accepted Kelly’s Hall of Fame plaque that evening on behalf of the family.
Fred Bear was the kind of man humble enough to understand that he needed to surround himself with incredible people. Bob Kelly was an incredible person who proved Fred right by helping to build the great Bear Archery and an entire industry.