It’s lunchtime at the Cracker Barrel in west Little Rock on a late September day. Steve “Wildman” Wilson has just sat down at a table and is perusing a menu as he waits to place his order. As he looks up from his menu, a man at a nearby table recognizes him and comes over to Wilson’s table to introduce himself. The men greet one another and shake hands; it seems as if they are long-lost friends.
This is a common occurrence for the “Wildman,” an Arkansas icon widely known as the face of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC). Wilson, who has served as public affairs coordinator for the AGFC since 1996, has played a major role in the commission’s efforts to promote wildlife conservation, as well as hunting and fishing, for nearly four decades. It’s a job for which he is clearly well-suited. But, next April, the 65-year-old Little Rock native will join the exodus of baby boomers from the workforce as he retires after 37 years of service.
“It’s time,” he said, adding that although he will leave the day-to-day work at the AGFC, he won’t stop promoting Arkansas’ outdoors. He plans to continue his “Call of the Wild” radio show, as well as do some public speaking, including the popular “Wild Game Feasts” programs hosted by many churches across the state. And, of course, he will continue to enjoy the outdoors of his beloved home state. After all, hunting and fishing is in his DNA.
A way of life
Wilson can’t recall a time when he didn’t hunt or fish. His parents, Charles and Virginia Wilson, were avid outdoors enthusiasts, and they raised Wilson and his older brother, Charlie, to hunt and fish as well.
“It was just a way of life for us. I thought everybody hunted and fished,” he said. “You live here in The Natural State, you are supposed to; it is a sin if you don’t.”
In fact, he started at such a young age, he doesn’t remember his first fishing trip. His father, who was in the produce business, would regularly take his family to Bear Skin Lake at Scott, southeast of Little Rock, to fish for bream.
“Dad told me the first fish I caught was a big old bream,” Wilson said. “It got on my line and I was hollering, ‘Help me daddy,’ and he said, ‘You got it on there, son. You’ve got to get it off.’”
Throughout his childhood, going bream fishing with his father would be a regular activity. It helped forge a strong bond between them.
“Those early mornings in that little bream fishing boat, we would be out there some mornings before the sun would come up and you couldn’t even see your cork it was so dark. We talked about life, responsibility and integrity, all those things you need to have,” Wilson said. “The way I look at it now, he had a captive audience. I couldn’t get out of the boat, you know. He was not an educated man, he just had good common sense.”
It was deer hunting that was most magical for the young Wilson and his father, who died four years ago at the age of 95.
“We spent 34 years of opening day gun deer season together,” Wilson said. “He lived from deer season to deer season. It was the deer camp more than the hunt.”
Getting ready to get readyWhen Wilson was growing up, deer season always started on a Monday. “We would load up and go down on a Saturday and set up camp,” Wilson recalled. “We would set up the tents, get all the beds set up and everything. And then we would come back home because dad wouldn’t miss church.”
His father and others would return to the camp, located in south Arkansas, on Monday, but Wilson would have to go to school. “I could not wait to get a report from deer camp to see all who killed deer,” he said.
When Wilson reached eighth grade, his parents let him miss school to go to the camp for a day. And while he was excited to go, he said he longed for the time when he could stay all week.On that first hunt, Wilson killed his first deer. And he’s killed many deer since. But, the hunt is not as important to him now. It’s the preparation he likes best.
“Getting ready to get ready; that’s my favorite part.”
The modern gun deer season now starts on a Saturday to allow more people to participate, Wilson said. But, he still misses the old way. “I don’t like it … you always remember how you were raised, the traditions.”
In addition to hunting and fishing, Wilson said his parents were devout members of the Nazarene church and instilled in him strong Christian values. “I am very blessed,” he said. “Now that I am getting older, I am realizing just how blessed I was.”
Upon his graduation from high school, Wilson went to college at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Okla. He immediately became homesick, and it got even worse when deer season arrived.
“I had never missed an opening day of deer season until college,” Wilson said. “I will never forget walking out of my college dorm, going to my Monday morning class, and deer season had started.”
As he walked to class, he heard dogs barking off in the distance and also thought he heard the sound of guns being fired. “I almost started crying,” he said.
He stuck it out, though, and ended up graduating with a bachelor’s degree in speech, business and education, which he said was an unusual combination. “I had never heard of it before I went there,” he said. “They called it a functional degree.”
Always ready with a humorous quip, Wilson added, with a laugh: “I think they just gave me a degree to get me out of there.”
Upon graduation, Wilson continued his education at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, Okla., where he graduated with a master’s degree in business. Encouraged by his brother, Wilson decided to pursue a position in public relations. “He was a great salesman and he knew public relations. He kind of took me under his wing … he always wanted me to do the things that he didn’t get to do, and he wanted me to be the best at it,” Wilson said.He was invited to join a new business venture called Power Transmission Specialists (PTS) in Little Rock. “I knew nothing about mechanics, … but I loved working with my brother and being a business owner,” he said.
The business was so successful that a Birmingham, Ala.-based company, seeking to expand into the Little Rock area, bought PTS. After the sale, Wilson continued working at PTS for awhile, but since he was no longer an owner, his interest waned. So he left PTS for a job at Phillips Men’s Store in downtown Little Rock. In 1977, he got married and again began to get restless in his career.
“I was making $800 a month with 2 percent commission,” he recalled, smiling. “I was averaging about $950 a month, and my goal was to make $1,000 a month.”
A twist of fateOne day, about a year into his marriage, he was out driving his 1959 Corvette when he stopped at a service station for gas. While he was pumping gas, an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission van pulled up. The driver of the van was Terry Horton, and he and Wilson immediately struck up a conversation about the car. The talk then progressed to hunting and fishing.
“We were like two ticks without a dog,” Wilson said, adding that Horton encouraged him to apply for a hunter safety educator job at the commission. Wilson did and after an interview, he knew he wanted it. “I was going, my God, thank the Lord, what a job.”
Then he asked what the job paid. The answer was $715 a month, much less than his current job paid. “Tears came; it just hit me right in the gut,” Wilson said. “I said, ‘thank you’ and went home.”
As soon as he walked in the door, his wife, Gail, knew something was wrong. He told her the interview had gone well, but to take the job would mean a pay cut. She simply said: “So what? You should take it if that will make you happy.” With her support, he made the move.
In 1984, Wilson had the opportunity to move from hunter safety education to a new program known as Project Wild. It was a national program, but Arkansas had not yet implemented it. The purpose of the project was to encourage teachers to incorporate information about wildlife as they taught various classes ranging from English to math, Wilson said.
While he was leading the Project Wild program, there were three other AGFC employees named Steve Wilson, including the commission director.
“The secretaries were going crazy,” Wilson said. “People would call and ask for Steve Wilson and they would say, ‘which one do you want?’ and the callers would say, ‘I want the one that does that wild program, or that wild one,’ and that kind of stuck.”After the Project Wild program, the newly nicknamed “Wildman” was promoted to chief of the Information and Education Division. Although he had business experience and had studied speech communications, it was still a challenge in that he didn’t have any formal journalistic training or experience.
“I had to trust my people,” he said. “My philosophy was to remove roadblocks that would keep them from doing their job.”
Because the commission didn’t have a marketing budget, it was up to Wilson and his staff to spread the word about the AGFC’s work through the news media.
“I would need to advertise that we were having a hunter safety class or something like that, and I’m not bashful, so I would just call the TV stations and they would say, ‘come on,’” he recalled.
Talking from the heart
Before Wilson, the best known AGFC spokesman was longtime employee George Purvis. During his tenure, Purvis hosted a weekly TV show about Arkansas’ outdoors. After watching a local cable TV production, Wilson approached Comcast Cable with the idea for his own show. That was about 25 years ago and the program was called “Talkin’ Outdoors at the Corner Café.” The set for the show was based on a café in Hampton where Wilson and his buddies would hang out during deer season.
“We would go in there and get coffee and tell lies about hunting and fishing, sitting at the table,” he said, adding that the show, now simply called “Talkin’ Outdoors,” airs on Channels 4 and 16 in Little Rock, as well as on stations in Fayetteville and Springfield, Mo.In addition to the TV show, Wilson hosts a weekly radio show called “Call of the Wild” that airs on about 20 stations. And he is a regular guest on morning and noon shows of local TV and radio stations. He is also a popular speaker for events of all kinds throughout the state. He carries a pocketbook calendar to keep him on schedule.
“I just kind of fell into it, and l’ve learned more about how to do it, such as how to provide sound bites,” he said, adding that the key to his success has been that “I was talking from the heart.”
And he has gotten secure in his message, he said.
“The great thing about my job is I don’t have to know a lot about anything,” he said. “I just have to know a little bit about everything … If you want to interview me for 10 minutes on the habits of snakes, I’m lost. I will give you one minute on snakes, but I’ve got people who know all that stuff, so if you want to know more, you can talk to this guy.”
The Conservation Sales Tax
In the 1990s, the AGFC joined other state agencies to seek support for legislation that would provide additional revenue through what became known as the Conservation Sales Tax. At the time, the commission was funded solely by revenue from hunting and fishing licenses. In the 1980s, the AGFC staff had determined that the agency’s expenses would soon exceed revenues from the licenses. It took three tries, but in November 1996, voters approved the tax, which designated 1/8th of 1 percent of the state’s general sales tax to the AGFC, Arkansas State Parks, the Arkansas Heritage Commission and the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission.
Wilson’s role in the campaign was to manage a speakers’ bureau to help educate the public and lawmakers about the need for the tax. In the 19 years since its passage, the tax has made a huge difference, he said. “There are so many more educational opportunities,” Wilson said, adding that the tax helped build four nature centers, as well as other important projects.
Passing it onWhile work has been a major part of his life, he has never lost his focus on family. He always made time to hunt and fish with his father, and just as his parents shared their love of the outdoors with him, Wilson has done the same with his daughter, Celeste, teaching her how to hunt and fish, and now his 5-year-old grandson, Luke, who loves going to deer camp. He even introduced his son-in-law, Nathan Molsbee, to deer hunting, which produced one of Wilson’s most treasured memories.
“I invited him down, and I let him sit on dad’s deer stand,” Wilson said, adding that his father had reluctantly decided not to hunt that year because of his deteriorating health. After giving Molsbee some tips, Wilson left and headed to his deer stand. A few minutes later, he was startled when he heard Molsbee fire his gun.
“It just scared me to death,” Wilson said. “I thought, oh Lord, he dropped the gun.”
But Molsbee had not dropped the gun. He had shot a six-point buck. As they prepared to retrieve it, Celeste arrived at camp. And she was not alone.
“Unbeknownst to us, Celeste had gone and got my dad from the nursing home,” he said, his voice choking with emotion and his eyes welling with tears. “We got to celebrate together.”
As the interview neared its end, Wilson began thumbing through a pile of photographs on a table in his memorabilia-filled office. There was a black and white photo depicting a 14-year-old Wilson, smiling broadly with his first deer as his father looked on. Another showed Wilson with Celeste, dubbed the “Wildchild,” with her first deer.
“The memories we remember are not the big things like the deer we killed together,” Wilson said. “It was the time we walked and I fell in a creek. Who would have thought that would have been a memory, but those are the defining moments.”
It’s those memories based on special relationships, both with family and others, that Wilson said mean most to him as he looks back on his life and career.
“Relationships are the name of the game,” he said. “I have been fortunate to have been invited to some of the best duck hunting places, trout fishing places, deer hunting places in the state because of my job, but I have found out one thing. I always have fun, but it’s not where you are, it’s who you’re with.”
Despite his impending departure from the commission, the Wildman’s enthusiasm for his work and state are as strong as ever. But it is also clear that he is looking forward to having more time for his favorite activities — fishing for bream and smallmouth bass, as well as hunting for the elusive wild turkey. And, of course, he will keep “getting ready to get ready” each deer season at the W. D. Oliver deer camp.
It is also certain that he’ll keep “talkin’” about Arkansas and the outdoors.
“It’s been fun,” he said. “What a great agency. What a great state. It is not hard to sell. We are The Natural State.”