Richard Connor: Faded photograph, precious memories, lasting friendships

Flip, Jake and Delmar, circa 1990

What I am about to do is unfair.

There is a dinner/fundraiser being held locally March 3 honoring the great Oklahoma dog trainer and conservationist Delmar Smith.

If you love fun, quail hunting, general camaraderie and laughter, and have a special place in your heart for dogs – and who doesn’t love all of these things? – you will want to be there.

The problem is, the event is already sold out.

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Smith will be receiving the T. Boone Pickens Lifetime Sportsman Award given by Park Cities Quail. The award is given annually to a person who is dedicated to wildlife and conservation. Two years ago, George Strait received it – not for his spectacular music career, but for his contributions to quail hunting and ecology.

In the face of a dwindling quail population, a group of North Texas area sportsmen and sportswomen in 2006 founded Park Cities Quail in Dallas and in only 10 years the group raised $5.2 million to help preserve and develop wildlife habitat.

This will be a great night honoring a legend in the sporting world and even if you cannot attend you can go to the group’s website, become a member and donate to a wonderful cause. And you can get in line early for next year’s dinner.

I will be there that night but my mind will be on a day at least 25 years ago, on a mountaintop in Maine. That’s where I met Delmar Smith, who was conducting a bird dog training clinic. At a dinner that night, the Oklahoma dog breeder and the Texas newspaper publisher talked about our shared love of dogs and then horses – he was a roper; I was a cutting horse guy.

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We also talked business and he imparted to me one of the most important lessons of my career. In business as in dog training, he told me, you can only solve problems when you discover the root of the problem. Most people, he said, try to fix a problem at the point where the problem materializes. They try to fix the symptom when they should be trying to understand how and when a problem started.

On that weekend, Delmar helped a friend of mine with his dog and then we parted company. Little did we know that we would run into one another again, on many occasions.

Nor did we know that I’d become friends with his son, Tom, and for over two decades have the great pleasure of bird hunting with Tom, a top dog trainer in his own right.

Last week, lightning struck for me. In a moment of serendipity, as I was looking forward to the Dallas dinner, I unearthed a photo of the day I met Delmar Smith. The picture shows Smith and Flip Hamblet, my best friend and hunting partner for 30 years, and Flip’s dog Jake, a partner Flip took to work with him every day.

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Outdoor writers wax poetic about the joys of hunting and fishing, ascribing almost ethereal attributes to those sports: the beauty of the outdoors, the tranquility of sunrises and sunsets, the pure joy and heart-stopping satisfaction when a hard-working bird dog slams on point.

But beyond all that, these sports are about relationships, about bonds among men and women that are rooted in kinship with nature and love of sport.

Finding the long lost photo of my friends brought this home to me in a hauntingly beautiful way.

The photo is dusty. Slightly faded. It’s from an era before Apple and the ubiquitous iPhone, a time when memories were captured on film, printed in a photograph, and put in a frame for the mantel.

Neither the pictures nor the memories they preserved could be accidently erased or lost with a careless swipe of an index finger.

The year was 1990. Maybe ’91.

My longest and now deceased best friend, Flip, smiles from underneath a ball cap promoting the Star-Telegram, the paper where I was publisher in those days. On his T-shirt is the logo of his own company. We envied each other’s careers.

His face is young and full, and his smile that of the proud owner of the Blackfield Pointer hunting dog I had given to him as a gift.

“Jake,” a handsome pup with a perfectly marked black and white face – the white stripe runs down the middle of his head and then lays over his nose like a blanket – sits between my friend and a gently smiling Delmar Smith.

That would be Delmar Smith from Big Cabin, Oklahoma.

Hollywood couldn’t invent that hometown or even the unique first name. Nor could it invent the story of an ambitious boy who rode horseback to school each day and cleaned dog pens to earn money to take a horse-training seminar, where he saw the opportunity to transfer what he learned into a career that revolutionized bird dog training.

Delmar’s pride in his work is evident in the photo. He has just worked his magic on Jake, a run-like-the-wind pointing dog who liked to run more than he liked to stop – not a good trait in a pointer.

With the rare touch that has long been his trademark, Delmar can communicate with a dog in a way that few humans can; it took him less than an hour to get Jake to listen.

Smith is also a great marketing man. Products he created and training seminars he designed continue to thrive today under the management of his sons and a nephew.

Studying the photo, my mind wandered into fall days of New England grouse hunting and winter days of Texas quail hunting. The hunting is mostly a blur. But the bonds of friendship cemented by the hunting and spanning years, decades and even generations are as sharp today as that old snapshot is faded.

Flip’s son Christopher now runs the family business and I’ve watched him grow into a man about the same age Flip was when I gave him Jake. In December, I hunted with Tom Smith, who is probably slightly older than Delmar was that day in Maine. Gazing at the photo, I see in my two friends reflections of their sons.

And I see again what I’ve seen so many times over the years: friends drawn together by their love of the outdoors, dogs, and sport, extending the continuum of relationships that bind us in permanent ways that transcend the consequences of day-to-day life.

Richard Connor is chairman of the parent company of Fort Worth Business, DRC Media. Contact him at