Turning the Page: Leslie Hooton ’80

Turning the Page: Leslie Hooton ’80

Leslie Hooton '80

“Some people have a stroke of luck; I had one at birth.” That’s the line Leslie Hooton ’80 uses to joke about the stroke that changed the trajectory of her life.

That kind of gallows humor has become a form of energy in her life, sustaining her through ups and downs, death and divorce, loneliness and disappointment. After years of dreaming of being a published author, the lifelong bookworm finally celebrated the release of her debut novel, “Before Anyone Else,” in March 2020. Then the COVID-19 Pandemic hit, taking away her book tour and all the ensuing publicity. “Somebody said, ‘Well, Leslie, everybody has time to read, this could be a swell time [for you].” And I’m like, ‘Well, if you’re John Grisham, that’s okay. But, if you’re an unknown writer, it’s not.’ It’s the literary equivalent to, if a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, did it fall? Well, that’s the way I felt the day that my book was released.”

The story of 30-year-old Bailey Ann Edgeworth, an aspiring restaurant architect (affectionately known by her initials as “Bae” to friends and family), “Before Anyone Else” tracks her trials and travails as she struggles to find a place—and a career—in a world that waits for no one.

The book also mirrors Hooton’s own triumph over adversity, encapsulating her fears and hopes before its publication. At its climactic finale, Edgeworth’s professional success liberates herself—and Hooton—to a bright future teeming with possibilities.

The stroke Hooton suffered as a baby meant spending too much of her childhood in hospital rooms far from her home in Roanoke, Ala. Her 24 surgeries may have enabled her to walk better, but made for a lonely childhood that continued as she grew older.

At Auburn, she saw her chance to change all that.

“Some people fall in love with people, like love at first sight. I fell in love with Auburn. I decided, ‘this is my chance to be myself, and be a different person.’ It was my chance to bloom, and Auburn gave me the greatest fertilizer in the world.”

Her father, a University of Alabama legacy, expected his daughter to follow him. But her mother, Elizabeth Hooton ’74, a University of Georgia grad who later earned a master’s degree in Library Sciences from Auburn, was insistent her daughter become more independent. When she set her heart on Auburn, there was no stopping her.

When she got to Auburn, she did everything—she served as dorm president and SGA senator for the Quad, was tapped for Lambda Sigma and ODK, wrote for the Auburn literary magazine The Circle and was an orientation leader at Camp War Eagle for two summers to share her school spirit. She even worked in the alumni association call center to solicit scholarship contributions.

The independence she had sought—and found—came as a shock to her mother when it followed her home. Once, while over spring break, a friend called asking for “Hootie.”

“[My] mother hands me the phone and she was like, ‘Hootie? You went from Mary Leslie, this beautifully demure name to Hootie?’” Hooton laughs. “I was ‘Hootie’ way before the Blowfish.”

But it wasn’t all roses. She has crushing memories of rejection from sororities that still sting. Her social life was not what she had anticipated. On Saturdays, she found solace in the RBD Library’s classical music collection, listening to Rachmaninoff and writing. The product of a family of librarians, she felt at home among the books.

“The girls would be going out on dates and stuff, and I was not the most desirable, with my body type, especially for young guys,” she said. “I’d just stay at the dorm and write.”

A second sorority rejection almost made her leave Auburn for good. But then she was one of five rising juniors tapped for ODK, a dream come true that gave her new friends and changed the trajectory of her time at Auburn. She still remembers the four others who were selected with her.

“It was such a momentous thing for me, because everybody else [in ODK] I considered big men and women on campus; maybe I could be considered that, too. I never considered myself anything. It’s funny.”

The idea for “Before Anyone Else” did not come overnight. Parts of it were drawn from real-life experiences, while others grew out of daydreams.

At the time, Hooton’s mornings consisted of going through divorce proceedings after 25 years of marriage, spending afternoons with her mother at a dementia center and nights spent in bed reading whatever magazines were nearby—usually Architectural Digest and Veranda. They were the first inklings of Bailey Edgeworth’s own career.

Leslie with her mother Elizabeth Hooton '74
Leslie with her mother, Elibath Hooton ’74 

One day, her 17-year-old neighbor called her “bae.” Hooton had to look up the meaning—“before anyone else.”

“My heart stopped for the second time in my life. It stopped the first time when I went to Auburn, and the second time, it was like, ‘”Before Anyone Else.” That’s a fantastic title for a book.’ But I had no book.”

To avoid eating alone, she ate at restaurants early before the rush began, talking with the staff, managers, bartenders and chefs, introducing her to a whole new world of experiences.

“They are an amazing group of people, not anybody that I would seek out on my own, but they were sweet, and they told me about their work process. One of the next nights I brought in a notebook and just started taking notes.”

All these experiences became like ingredients for a meal, she said, but weren’t “all in a pot together” until Hooton’s mother was in the hospital. The character, she decided, would have the initials “B.A.E.,” and would work in an industry filled with bright, vibrant colors and exciting, complicated people. Bailey Edgeworth’s life began as an escape from her own.

“I used to say, it was because I was in hospital rooms so much in my childhood and they were all brown. I couldn’t wait to get out of that and create colors that bounce.”

Hooton wanted Bailey to be more confident than herself, but they share many of the same concerns. A fourth-generation attorney, Hooton served as a trust officer handling the execution of wills and estates for decades after graduating from Auburn. But in Roanoke, she was known more as the daughter of her famous elders than as an individual.

Like Hooton, Bailey lives under the shadow of the “famous men” in her life. Her father is a celebrity chef, while her restaurateur brother Henry and cocktail mixologist Griffin are known around Atlanta as “the Color Wheel Boys” for their restaurant names like ”VERT,” ”NOIR” and ”BLANC.”

Hooton during a virtual book club event
Hooton during a virtual book club event in 2020

Despite winning numerous awards and earning praise, Bailey still struggles for the recognition of her own talents. Her smoldering relationship with Griffin, in particular, is a microcosm of the limbo she finds herself trapped in.

Griffin represents some of Bailey’s most formative life moments, but, paradoxically, tethers her to a life she has grown out of. The friction between pursuing her own life and never leaving home provides the central plotline—a woman astride both the present and the past, truly at home in neither, but conflicted on which to abandon.

“I was not in a happy place,” Hooton says now. “I wanted to write a happy book for me, so it would turn out okay. I wanted to create this beautiful, happy world, and I wanted Bailey to undergo a transformation, because if it was possible for her, it would be possible for me.” Invigorated, Hooton spent 2019 completing the manuscript and shared it with author Jill McCorkle at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. Later she showed it to Kevin Wilson, author of “Nothing to See Here,” who also enjoyed it. When the book was eventually picked up by Turner Publishing, esteemed author and Auburn alumnus Patti Callahan Henry ‘86 contributed a blurb for the press. She dedicated the book to her mother.

Tragically, in January 2020 Hooton’s brother, Robert Hooton ’85, suffered a fatal heart attack, only hours after they last spoke.

“I was so excited that my book was going to be released, and then my brother died. I’m like, ‘Okay, God. All my family is gone.’ And I have FOMO (fear of missing out), because they’re all up there in Heaven, living on a cloud, having a good time, and you’ve left me down here with this bargain-basement body. But I know, you’ve given me my book. Okay.”

After the deaths of her marriage, her mother and now her brother, with no children of her own, Hooton was unexpectedly on her own.“Life is funny,” Bailey Edgeworth reflects early in the novel. “The things that haunt us are perhaps the things that propel us to create and see something better. Something beautiful.”

“[On my blog] I refer to my body as ‘the bargain-basement body,’ and I run it like a company. I call myself “Leslie, Inc.” Yesterday, Leslie, Inc. went to the physical therapist, and tomorrow, Leslie, Inc. is going to the acupuncturist.” Hooton is describing her schedule around her home of Charlotte, N.C., which has finally become a little more routine since the arrival of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Unfortunately, it is too late for the book’s publicity tour. Hooton had huge events planned around the south before everything was forced to close.

She opened a bottle of champagne at home to celebrate. Alone. But, when the Auburn bookstore hosted an interview with her over Zoom, everything changed. Again. Her college roommates came out to support her, and RBD Library hosted her on a Zoom call that drew hundreds of views. She was invited to speak at book clubs and has done an abbreviated virtual book tour.

Hooton isn’t planning to retire on her laurels, though. She’s already working on a sequel to “Before Anyone Else” due out in 2022 and is working on a “southern gothic”-type memoir of her mother.

Hooton with her college roommates
Hooton with her college roommates Jennie Huey Sandlin ’81 and Julie Varagona Karstens ’81

She’s also currently writing a book that’s expected out in September 2021that draws from her law career and features “friendship, funeral casseroles and lucky dust.”

If Bailey Edgeworth embodied Hooton’s anxieties and hopes, the characters in her next novel reflect her newfound confidence.

“My editor said, ‘What’s a line out of the book?’ I said, “Her name was Win, and she did, at everything, her whole damn life.” She’s beautiful, probably skinny and has a great tan, and wears Jack Rogers, and rides a bike, which are the last two things I can’t do.

I’ve never been able to ride a bike, and I’ve never been able to wear flip-flops. So, if there’s a Heaven, then there will be a bicycle and a pair of Jack Rogers waiting for me.”

The Long Road Back

The Long Road Back

Marsha Bass Schmid ’99 was living her best life before an accident changed everything. Now, she’s using her journey to motivate others.

FOR MARSHA BASS SCHMID, a twist of fate began with a slight twist of the neck. A medical sales rep for AgaMatrix, she  specialized in diabetes testing equipment and covered a multistate territory. A former Tigerette at Auburn, she had a 4-year-old son, was physically fit and recently married.  But sciatic nerve pain in her leg had bothered her for years, and she had visited a chiropractor more than 50 times for relief. The usual method to relieve the pain and inflammation would be to adjust her neck, then her back.

On March 30, 2011, something went wrong at one of her doctor’s appointments.

“At first, I couldn’t see,” recalled Schmid. “I called my husband to say ‘I can’t drive home, something is not right.’ He came to get me and he said, ‘If something is knocked out of place, [the chiropractor] can knock it back in.’ I went back in, the adjustment was made and that sealed the deal.”

Schmid had dissected the vertebral artery connecting her heart to her brain. After her condition perplexed doctors for 12 hours, she was rushed to Piedmont Hospital. They knew right away she had suffered a brainstem stroke, one of the most dangerous a person can have.

For the next year she lived on a ventilator, unable to open her eyes, speak, swallow or move. Survivors call it “locked-in” syndrome, where you are able to hear noises around you, but are unable to respond. It was a nightmare.

That was almost a decade ago, but it may as well be another lifetime. She’s long adjusted to moving in a wheelchair, and though her speech is limited, her mind is as sharp as ever.

“It’s kind of ironic for an English major,” said Schmid from her home in Peachtree City, Ga. “When my ability to speak was affected, it was hard because that was how I made my living; all of a sudden that was taken away.”

While doing physical therapy at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, her fellow patients inspired her to keep working. One had recovered from a brainstem stroke like hers and now is an ultra-marathon runner. Another was Yvette Pegues,
Ms. Wheelchair USA 2014.

Begun more than 20 years ago by the Dane Foundation, Ms. Wheelchair USA celebrates beauty and self-confidence in women with disabilities through a variety of competitions, including interviews, on-stage presentations and more. After learning more about the organization, Schmid decided to enter.

Though it’s a competition, it’s more about recognizing women with disabilities for their community service rather than glamour, she said. Until the pandemic began, Schmid volunteered with I-58 Mission, Inc., handing out food to the needy every Thursday.

Survivors call it “locked-in” syndrome, where you are able to hear noises around you, but are unable to respond.
It was a nightmare

Schmid at the Shepherd Center

The first time she entered in 2018, she was named Ms. Wheelchair Southeastern USA. The next year, as Ms. Wheelchair Georgia, she was crowned Ms. Wheelchair USA 2019.

“[It was] overwhelming, to say the least, because these pageants don’t have an age requirement, so I was up against 20-somethings,” she said. “As a single mom, it was the greatest thing to win the title. It was overwhelming and great and such an honor.”

The irony of the COVID-19 pandemic, Schmid says, is that able-bodied people can understand what it’s like to be disabled. Everyone is shut in, it’s difficult to see doctors and cleaning products are critical. On the other hand, companies are realizing how easy it is to work from home, which is good for those with disabilities or difficult conditions.

But what the pandemic took from Schmid was the pageantry of her reign as Ms. Wheelchair USA. Parades, appearances, speaking engagements—all canceled as the nation was forced to stay home. For the immunocompromised like herself, the risk is too high. And having already handed down her crown to the 2020 winner Dani Rice, it has been a bittersweet summer. But she is no stranger to adversity.

Schmid hopes to be a motivational speaker someday, particularly for young women in similar conditions. If she can motivate someone else, despite her speech issues, perhaps they
can do the same.

With the arrival of the EAGLES program at Auburn, which provides students with developmental disabilities a chance to attend college, she sees an opportunity to be a force for good.

“When people are physically or developmentally disabled, people do judge them by their appearance,” she said. “But they want the same things you do—they want success in life, they want to be involved, they want the opportunity. I would love to help.” She hopes that working with students will spark the return to Auburn she has been craving for years. In the meantime, she continues with physical therapy at home nine hours a week and prepares her son Troy for high school in the fall. Change won’t come overnight, but she is already educating and inspiring others, no matter the circumstances.

“Nothing is forever. Every dark cloud has a silver lining, and you may not feel that way right now, but look for it, because it’s there.”

In the Pursuit of Justice: Brittany Henderson ’11

In the Pursuit of Justice: Brittany Henderson ’11

 

Brittany Henderson ’11

When the world learned the long-awaited truth about Jeffrey Epstein — the mysterious billionaire who used wealth and connections to become perhaps the worst pedophile in American history — Brittany Henderson ’11 could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

For years, she and her law firm partner/mentor Bradley J. Edwards sought justice for Epstein’s victims, slashing through a jungle of legal quagmires, government obfuscation and a vast network of shadowy ‘fixers’ to reach its core.

Their efforts succeeded in securing charges that ultimately placed Epstein behind bars. It is because of their work that the world knows him and the decades of abuse that countless girls and young women suffered because of him. Their journey to pull the phantom from the dark is detailed in their book “Relentless Pursuit: My Fight for the Victims of Jeffrey Epstein” released March 2020.

“One of the last conversations that Brad [Edwards] and Jeffrey [Epstein] had was Epstein joking that if there was ever a book or a movie, he wanted to make sure that his character was played right,” says Henderson. “We made sure there’s some perspective from the good guys and the bad guys.” A South Florida native, Henderson came to Auburn wanting to help people. She set her sights on becoming a doctor, but soon was inspired to become a lawyer and interned with the Lee County Courthouse during her senior year.

But the political science grad’s first real experience came while she was still attending law school at Nova Southeastern University. As a law clerk working for Brad Edwards, she had unknowingly stepped into a years-long fight against Epstein.

Brittany Henderson '11
Brittany Henderson ’11

The story of Brad Edwards’ takedown of Epstein began years earlier, in 2008, when Courtney Wild, former victim of Epstein’s, walked into his office. Epstein had just been given an extremely lenient sentence — a few months in a minimum-security prison, followed by several months of house arrest — and even then, he continued to flout the rules of his sentence. Meanwhile, the ruling was kept secret by Epstein’s lawyers and prosecutors, leaving his victims completely in the dark.

Why government prosecutors had given Epstein such a lenient sentence was and remains a mystery, even today, but the ruling was a clear violation of the Crime Victims’ Rights Act (CVRA), which guarantees the rights of victims to know the outcome of their federal crimes’ cases. While the other lawyers moved on to the next case, giving up on Epstein, Edwards dug in his heels.

“Brad made it his life’s mission to make sure justice was served to Epstein. Had he given up on the fight when everyone else did, I’m sure Epstein would still be hanging out on his island in the Virgin Islands right now.”

When Henderson joined the fight in 2014, Edwards was in the middle of two separate cases, one a personal lawsuit filed by Epstein, the other the CVRA case representing Epstein’s victims. In the case of the latter, the U.S. government had for years fought to not turn over any evidence related to Epstein’s first cakewalk prison sentence using delay tactics. Epstein was aided by an army of high-powered celebrity lawyers like Alan Dershowitz.

Brittany Henderson with Brad Edwards
Henderson with Brad Edwards and their book “Relentless Pursuit” 

The case immediately changed the direction of Henderson’s own legal career.

“As I read through the emails the government sent to Epstein’s attorneys, I was thinking ‘these people should be in jail. How is this possible?’ They were supposed to help the victims, but worked with the bad guy to make sure [the victims] didn’t know what was going on,” recalls Henderson. “It created this fire in me; I just couldn’t stand it. I wanted to do whatever it took for the rest of my career to make sure that things were fair for victims.”

Henderson hadn’t even graduated law school when she and Edwards wrote the summary judgment motion that led to a ruling that the victims’ rights had in fact been violated by the government. At the same time, another now-grown Epstein victim named Virginia Roberts had come forward with new, hard evidence, photographs and dozens of names that Edwards and Henderson interviewed to build their case.

“You think ‘this is unbelievable,’ but it really is unbelievable that it happened to this girl when she was 17, and she’s sitting here ready to stand up and fight against the people who did this to her.”

Henderson was an invaluable resource for the case, able to sympathize with women who felt recalcitrant speaking about their past. Sometimes the same age as the victims she was interviewing, she became more than just a lawyer for her clients; she became a friend and confidante, too.

Henderson traveled everywhere that Edwards did, interviewing dozens of new victims as well as meeting regularly with Epstein’s lawyers. On one occasion, she even met Epstein. “I only spoke with Jeffrey Epstein once, and you know that he’s a bad guy, you know that he’s done so many horrible things, but just from the charismatic energy that he had, you get a great perspective on how so many women ended up being manipulated and abused by him.

He had this energy about him that made you want to talk to him, [but then] take a step back and say, ‘wait a minute, this is a really, really bad guy.’”

With the evidence provided by Roberts, Edwards and Henderson began building cases against key Epstein associates like Ghislaine Maxwell, Epstein’s onetime girlfriend-turned “procurer” of young girls, and Jean-Luc Brunel, a talent scout for a modeling agency that Epstein would exploit for his sexual deviancy.

The closer they got to Epstein himself, the higher the stakes would get. On one occasion, they had to hide a victim in an undisclosed hotel after she was being followed. In other instances, Epstein would call Edwards directly from a private number that appeared only as “0000000” immediately following an important meeting, raising the question of whether their own office had been bugged with secret recording devices.

“It became this running joke ­— Brad could not call Jeffrey, but Jeffrey could call Brad, so if there was something Brad wanted to talk to [Epstein] about, I would look up at the ceiling and say ‘Jeffrey, can you call?’ and on more than one occasion, within minutes of that happening, Epstein would call Brad.”

Once, a mysterious package arrived at the office with no return address; both were scared to open it. Though a direct attack on Edwards would be an obvious retaliation from Epstein, Henderson felt an attack on her would not be out of the question. As the CVRA suit began to make its way through the Federal courts, it gained the attention of prosecutors in the Southern District of New York (SDNY). Unlike the non-prosecution deal he received in Florida in 2007, Epstein had no prior immunity in New York where he operated for decades.

Henderson and Edwards continued to interview former victims, employees and associates of Epstein, while secretly cooperating with SDNY prosecutors to build an airtight case against him. Once the prosecutors had enough evidence, they could secure a warrant for his arrest.

“Brad was able to use the CVRA as cover when Epstein started to get suspicious as to why girls were being interviewed again. But those interviews were actually not for the CVRA case, but for the Southern District of New York.”

In 2019, the SDNY prosecutors arrested Epstein stepping off his private plane in New York. When the judge set a bond hearing for July 18, 2019 to determine if he could walk free, Henderson and Edwards flew to New York with their client Courtney Wild to be there in person. Before the judge delivered an opinion, they asked if the two victims present, Wild and Annie Farmer (represented by a colleague) wanted to speak. Just five feet from Epstein, each woman told the judge why Epstein should be in jail.

“Honestly, I’ve never seen anything more powerful in my entire life,” said Henderson. “The courage they had to get up and say those words to the man who had abused them, it’s really unfathomable. The next time [his] victims had the opportunity to say anything about Epstein in court was after he had died.”

Prince Andrew, Virginia Roberts and Ghislaine Maxwell
A photo used as evidence in Virginia Roberts’ lawsuit. (L-R) Prince Andrews, Duke of York, Roberts and Ghislaine Maxwell

As was widely reported, on August 10, 2019, Epstein was found dead in his cell from an apparent suicide, despite being on strict orders to monitor him around the clock. Though there was, and is, widespread speculation that he was murdered, Henderson and Edwards both believe the jarring shift in his lifestyle — no outlet for his sexual desires, a cramped, dirty prison cell and “rough” treatment at the hands of his guards — ultimately proved too much for him.

Whatever the true reason, it was a frustrating end to a frustrating case. But the Epstein saga is far from over. Today, Henderson and Edwards currently represent over 50 Epstein victims against his estate, in addition to remaining hopeful that charges will be brought against Epstein associates like Ghislaine Maxwell. The two also spent hours after work for months writing “Relentless Pursuit,” whittling over 800 pages into the concise, compelling book now available in stores.

“Brad and I spent so much time trying to distill the book down to what people would actually care about — there were so many things that happened, and so many hyper-technical legal events, and I feel really good about the feedback we’ve gotten so far.”

In 2019, Henderson was made a full-time partner at Edwards Pottinger and now devotes her life representing victims of sexual assault beyond Epstein to all over the United States. After all she and Brad Edwards have been through, she says she can’t imagine working with anyone else.

“I’ve learned that you get out of things what you put into them. When you treat something like a profession, it’s different than when you treat something like a job. We treat this as our lifestyle, and I feel like we’re really able to help people by giving everything we have to what we do.”

Edwards and Henderson following the release of “Relentless Pursuit: My Fight for the Victims of Jeffrey Epstein” released March 2020

Wild Life: J. Wayne Fears ’64

Wild Life: J. Wayne Fears ’64

It wasn’t until the plane had left that J. Wayne Fears knew something was wrong. The wilderness survival expert had charted a trip deep into uncharted British Columbia to explore a potential hunting range. He would canoe a tributary of the Stikine River through the Cassiar Mountains to an extraction point further south.

Except, the creek he had to navigate was too shallow for a canoe. The gear he had paid the pilot for amounted to a duffel bag full of literal garbage. He hadn’t seen or heard a plane in days, had no axe to keep firewood going and had to fend off a grizzly bear that entered his camp every night. It was late August and getting cold. Ostensibly a two-day trip, it was now day 15. No one was coming.

“That morning, I was studying a map; it was a week-long hike across some of North America’s most difficult terrain,” recalls Fears. “I was going to try to walk out of there as best I could, or at least die trying.”

 

In the outdoor business, his name is legend. Forest Recreation Manager with the Gulf States Paper Corporation for 9 years Fears helped establish hunting and fishing opportunities throughout North America. A prolific writer as well, in his lifetime Fears estimates he’s had published over 6,200 articles and 33 books on hunting, fishing, wilderness survival and beyond. When asked where he continues to find the inspiration, his answer is simple: “I’m actually out there doing it all the time.”

Growing up in the Cumberland Mountain region of north Alabama, hunting and fishing were not just outdoor diversions, but critical parts of his family’s survival.

J. Wayne Fears '64
J. Wayne Fears ’64

“My dad was a trapper, and my mother was a rural schoolteacher, so we didn’t have any money,” recalls Fears. “But as far back as I can remember, I’d been helping my dad do things around our little farmstead, run his trap lines and fish. We lived off the land, and I can’t remember when it wasn’t fun.” Running traplines to and from school, Fears was a self-professed “nasty little kid who probably smelled like skunk a lot of times in class,” but the outdoors went hand-in-hand with everyday life.

Equally as formative were the Boy Scouts of America, where his scoutmaster took his knowledge of the outdoors to the “next level,” teaching them navigation, advanced camping skills and cooking with a Dutch Oven. Fears made the Boy Scouts’ highest rank of Eagle at the ripe old age of 15. For his Eagle Project, he organized a cleanup of the Flint River watershed, an important part of his own life.

“I grew up on that river — ran trot-lines on it, fished it, learned how to swim in it. To me, it was just taking care of one of the resources that had been so important to me as a kid.”

Fears entered the Army the day after graduating high school and pondered a military career, but the call of the wild proved too strong. After reading about careers in the fields of ‘wildlife habitat management’ — the first of their kind — he sought a place that could provide him the necessary education to enter the field. The only problem was, no programs like that existed at the time.

“This was back in the early ‘60s, and there were no universities that had majors or degrees in wildlife habitat management and outdoor education. But Auburn had the best reputation in land management, and that was the reason I selected Auburn.” A foray into forestry didn’t pan out, but after meeting with his advisors, Fears, with their help, created a curriculum he felt would help him accomplish his personal goals, combining agronomy, zoology, soils, botany and much more. He took 23 hours a quarter and was driven to graduate as quick as possible.

“I wasn’t there to go to fraternity parties and football games, I was there to learn as much as I could and get out and go to work.” By far, the land management courses were his favorite. Excised of mind-numbing core curricula, Fears relished the opportunity to get out into the field during “lab days” and get his hands dirty. Despite his own enthusiasm, his counselors were apprehensive that he would find a career with the diverse courses he was taking.

Fears in his home office
Fears in his home office

After graduating from Auburn, Fears landed a job directing a project sponsored by the University of Georgia to help rural landowners manage their land and water resources, with the goal of opening up the area up to paying hunters and fishers to provide an additional income to the low income county. Fears often needed to study how to do things the night before he did them, but had enormous fun doing it. In short order, Outdoor Life magazine sent legendary outdoor writer Charlie Elliot to profile their efforts.

“Charlie Elliot was the major writer of outdoor life when I was a kid, and I used to love reading his stuff; I never thought I’d get to meet the man, much less get to know him firsthand.”

When the Outdoor Life feature was published in the March ’66, it changed Fears’ life forever.

“It gave me exposure I never would have gotten; nobody had ever heard of J. Wayne Fears, and that article, being in a big national magazine, launched me into the next step of my career, which was to take eight South Georgia counties and do the same thing.” That cooperative effort between the Georgia Game & Fish Commission, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and several other government agencies lasted three years. During that time, they converted rivers into canoe trails, developed public hunting & fishing areas and designated the Okefenokee Swamp a national wilderness area.

After three years, Fears realized he needed a master’s degree to take his career to the next level. At the same time the University of Georgia approached him about being the “guinea pig” for their new outdoor recreation master’s program.

“One thing grew on another, but it was that fantastic land management background from Auburn that made it all work.” By 1974, Fears had built a growing (and glowing) reputation for himself. When the Gulf States Paper Corporation (now Westervelt Co.) approached him to help lead a new Forest Recreation division of their company, he jumped at the chance.

“They owned a half-million acres in Alabama. I was used to starting new projects, so I said I’d do it; wasn’t sure if I could do it, but I thought I’d try.”

As division head, Fears began setting up the first executive-style hunting lodges east of the Mississippi. He traveled to Texas to learn how to build and run the lodges and manage the half-million acres for quality hunting leases.

After that, Fears went to Colorado to set up a pack-in hunting and trout fishing operation atop the Rocky Mountains. Then he traveled to Alaska and British Columbia to set up hunting operations there. At the head of the Matanuska Glacier, Fears and his team learned to hunt the area, how to feed people in remote camps, how to guide hunters; everywhere they went, they were breaking new ground, with plenty of adventures along the way.

“At the same time, I’m writing for several outdoor magazines,” says Fears. “[After] every trip when I’d get back to the office in my home, I had all these new adventures, so I’d just query those editors and say, ‘how about an article about how this guy got hopelessly lost and survived.’ I always had new material.”

Some of Fears’ stories seem larger than life: abandoned by their Inuit guides on Baffin Island, near Greenland, after their cook supposedly insulted their ancestors; being lost over the Arctic Ocean in a Super Cub; running search-and-rescue missions for hunters who had nervous breakdowns. All true.

Fears had several years of exploring experience under his belt when the charter plane left Watson Lake in the Yukon for the Cassiar Mountains, so it seemed perfectly reasonable to keep the solo expedition quiet. But as the plane kept circling the lake that would be his starting point, he felt a growing sense of unease. By the time he realized the pilot had left him on an uncharted lake with no gear, the plane was already gone. He hunkered down at an old Cree Indian campsite and decided to wait.

“This is before the days of GPS and satellite radios, but I thought, ‘this can’t be too bad.’ I had been working in the arctic and Alaska by then; I always carried a little two-man tent and sleeping bag in a pack, and I always carried a rifle with me and a pack fly-rod. I also had a little survival kit; I thought I’d be alright.”

Fifteen days later, things were getting desperate. Not having seen even a vapor trail from a plane, he thought his mind was playing tricks when he heard the drone of an engine high above.

Hunting with Inuit in the Arctic
Hunting with the Inuit in the Arctic

Grabbing a red shirt tied to a pole, he flagged down the plane and paddled out to make his escape. Fears’ rescuers were a supply team working for a gold mine in southern Yukon that had flown off-course to avoid a snowstorm. If not for this meteorological twist of fate, they never would have crossed that desolate lake.

Stories like these were a publishers’ dream and Fears continued contributing thousands of articles and photographs to a wide variety of publications. He still has dozens of articles published annually.

As an editor of Rural Sportsman — a magazine-within-a-magazine published inside Progressive Farmer magazine — for 11 years Fears’ articles were read by over 650,000 subscribers. When Progressive Farmer developed the National Wildlife Stewardship Awards Program, Fears had the opportunity to meet many of his readers in person as chief judge of the awards program. The more Fears wrote, the more they wrote back. Whenever a new issue of the Progressive Farmer came out, he often received up to 600 emails and letters wanting to know more.

The letters let him know what readers were passionate about and helped guide future articles. The article that drew the biggest response, however, had little to do with adventure.

When Fears’ daughter, Carla Fears Schmit, passed away from multiple sclerosis in 2017, he wrote a tribute to her that was later republished in magazines and newspapers around the country.

“She was really avid at the outdoors,” Fears recalls. “Before she passed away, it got so she couldn’t get out and do that stuff. I wrote an article about her passion for the outdoors; even when she couldn’t walk, she would still want to go deep-sea fishing, or she would still want to go and spend time out on the shooting range. It was very personal for me to write the article, but I was overwhelmed with letters and emails — and it was thousands of letters and emails.”

Fears is also a great campfire cook
In addition to hunting and exploring, Fears has a prolific publishing career as a campfire cook

Fears dedicated his book “How to Build Your Dream Cabin in the Woods” to Carla.

Though his book career is replete with outdoor-related titles — “Hunting Whitetails East & West,” “Lost-Proof Your Child” and more — his culinary career stands out for both its breadth and scope. Food was always a critical aspect of every backcountry expedition, particularly when traveling in large groups, and Fears inadvertently learned to cook early on. Starting with an article entitled “How to Make Jerky at Home,” he soon published books like “The Field & Stream Wilderness Cooking Handbook,” “Backcountry Cooking,” and more. His compilation of the best game recipes from all 50 U.S. states and Puerto Rico for “Cooking the Wild Harvest” became an international outdoor bestseller. But it was the Dutch Oven — learned from his days with the Boy Scouts — that really took off. His most recent cookbook, “The Lodge Book of Dutch Oven Cooking,” has so far been translated into four languages and is sold around the world.

His most recent book “The Scouting Guide to Survival” won the 2019 Pinnacle Award, the Professional Outdoor Media Association’s top prize. It was Fears’ third time winning it.

He also dabbles in writing historical fiction and is working on a sequel to his immensely popular book “Isaac: Trek to King’s Mountain” about the battle that turned the tide of the Revolutionary War.Yet, no matter how far his adventures take him, he never forgets the foundation at Auburn that put him on the right path.

“They were willing to run a risk on an unknown country boy, to help me put together a curriculum that was what I wanted — I will always be indebted to them for that.”