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Outdoor legend Grits Gresham dies
Grits Gresham, of Natchitoches, a legendary outdoorsman, died Monday.

By Philip Timothy
Louisiana Gannett News

Many of today's generation may not know, or remember, or even have heard of Claude Hamilton Gresham Jr.

But you can bet your parents or grandparents have, especially if they spent anytime hunting and fishing.
Gresham, who is better known by his nickname, 'Grits,' was an American outdoor icon ... a legend ... a pioneer. The first host of ABC's "American Sportsman," his name is synonymous with everything that had to do with outdoors.

With his trademark driftwood, floppy hat and white muttonchops, he traveled the world hunting, shooting and fishing with some of America's most famous people. He also spent a lifetime working to bring to light key outdoor and environmental issues.

The noted outdoorsman, writer, author and TV personality died Monday in his hometown of Natchitoches at the age of 85 from complications from an infection and pneumonia.

"We (his children) have seen this coming for quite some time," said Tom Gresham, his son. "We have been going down this road for quite some time."

Gresham, who had Alzheimer's, spent the past year at the Heritage Manor Nursing Home in Natchitoches.

"Even before he came to the nursing home, I knew Grits ... knew about the many contributions he made to hunting and fishing," said Brian Martin, the nursing home's administrator and a scorer for Boone and Crockett. "I had the good fortune to fish with him here in Natchitoches."

Robert Barham, the recently appointed secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, spent a lot of time around Gresham growing up.

"My dad was good friends with Grits," Barham said. "As a matter of fact, there is a picture of my dad in one of his books - 'The Complete Wildfowler.' As a child, I got to meet him and be around him.

"He was just so easy to be around. Grits was nothing like the TV celebrities of today. People were drawn to him. He made them feel at ease ... he made me feel at ease, and I was just a child," Barham said. "It will be difficult knowing he's no longer here. He was a wonderful, wonderful person.

"If there is a happy hunting grounds, the legend, who set the gold standard for the outdoors, has gone to it."

Like Barham, Bert Jones, the former standout quarterback at LSU and for the Baltimore Colts, got to know Gresham as a youngster. When contacted, Jones was on his horse, hunting quail in Texas.

"I guess it is only fitting," said Jones by telephone, "that I'm hunting when I find out my close, close friend has passed away. I wish he were here with me right now. I will miss him."

As a 10-year-old, Jones and Gresham's son Tom did a lot of hunting and fishing with their fathers.

"We hunted ducks in the Delta, deer around Spring Bayou and dove here in Ruston," Jones said. "He was a fabulous shot and he loved to bass fish. I learned a lot from him about the outdoors."

Nicknamed the Ruston Rifle, Jones went from LSU to the NFL and later into TV. The pair stayed close throughout that time.

"As a matter of fact," Jones chuckled, "Grits and Mary went with my wife and I on our honeymoon.

"I convinced my wife we needed to go on a hunting trip to Argentina for our honeymoon. What I didn't tell her was I asked Grits if he wanted to go and we could film an episode of the 'American Sportsman.' We spent about an hour in Buenos Aires before getting on a plane and flying four hours south.

"The place we stayed had no electricity and the huts were little more than just that, but we ended up having such a wonderful time there. The four of us hunted geese from a pit blind."

Jones, a former commissioner on the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, would appear on two episodes of "American Sportsman" and Gresham appeared three times with Jones on his show, "Suzuki's Great Outdoors" on ESPN.

"My dad always thought the guests on his shows were famous, but to the guests, it was my dad who was famous," said Tom Gresham. "He and Curt Gowdy both had a lot of fun doing the 'American Sportsman.' They kept it fun with the people they would have join them."

Entertainers such as Bing Crosby, Burt Reynolds, Jonathan Winters, Phil Harris, Rip Torn and Andy Griffith joined him on many of these hunting and fishing trips, as did Olympic decathlon gold medalist Bruce Jenner, pro football hall of fame defender Buck Buchanan and Jones, the 1976 NFL Most Valuable Player.

As much as he enjoyed to hunt and fish, Gresham was also mindful about the resource and what it meant to future generations. He was one of the first to sound the alarm about Louisiana's wetland loss, and he helped Bass Anglers Sportsman's Society founder Ray Scott erase the stigma of cheating that haunted tournament bass fishing during the early days.

"My dad got his master's from LSU in forestry and wildlife management," said Tom Gresham. "I remember him writing about the loss of our wetlands 30 years before anyone else did. I can still remember the title of his story - 'Kiss the Land Goodbye."

Scott can also remember articles, columns and books written by Gresham.

"'The Complete Book of Bass Fishing' is the best book ever written on bass fishing," said Scott, nicknamed the Bass Boss. "He wrote a column for my Bassmaster magazine and wouldn't take any money for it," Scott said. "All he asked me to do was to put an ad in his publication, which I gladly did.

"A lot of writers shied away from writing for me, but not Grits. I'll admit he was skeptical at first, but we eventually hashed it out on a fishing trip to Novello, Mexico, in 1970. And once he saw what I was trying to do with this organization, he was very supportive of me.

"He helped to dispel the myths about the cheating in tournaments, spread the word on conservation and ethics and teach people how to fish," Scott said. "He was truly one of the pillars of B.A.S.S.

"I use to tease him about that old floppy hat he wore, but was a very good friend, and he will be missed by us all," Scott said.

Barham agreed, "His passing leaves a huge void. There will never be another like him."
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