Tom Kelly never guessed his knack for fireside hunting tales would turn into a second career and make him one of the best-known outdoors writers in the business. Nor would he have guessed that putting down on paper a few of his most entertaining yarns would turn into one of the most successful hunting books ever written. But for four decades, “Tenth Legion” has been just that.
“It’s been in print for 40 years and it’s still selling,” Kelly, who published “Tenth Legion” in 1973, said as he reclined in his office above a shopping center restaurant on Highway 98 in Daphne.
He didn’t stop there, and now has 22 books and scores of articles for magazines such as Field & Stream, Sports Afield, Sports Illustrated and Turkey Country to his name. Not bad for someone who, for most of his adult life, made his living as a forester and manager of Scott Paper Company’s woods division. But a passion for turkey hunting, a dry wit and a way with words combined to create one of this generation’s most celebrated outdoors writers.
“It’s a curious thing about the first one,” said Kelly, who lives in Spanish Fort. “My wife said, ‘I hear you telling all these damn stories, why don’t you write some of them down?’ So I wrote some of them down.
“Then I decided well, hell, I’ll just publish the damn thing myself.”
He liked it well enough to self-publish about 500 copies.
“I thought there are probably a couple of hundred people who don’t know I can read and write and they’ll buy one out of curiosity just to see if it was really me,” Kelly said. “If nothing happens after that, I have an unlimited supply of Christmas presents and I don’t have to buy them.”
Kelly managed to sell and give away the first printing and figured that was that. And then he got a letter from a law firm in Monroe, Louisiana, saying a client who owned a sporting goods store liked the book so much he’d copied it on his office photocopier and was giving it to customers.
He granted permission and then the law firm asked to print some copies. Finally, Kelly’s wife and Betty Jo Woolf, who owned a bookstore in Fairhope, formed Wingfeather Press and bought the next five or six editions and began selling it. Eventually, a New York publishing house picked up “Tenth Legion.” Royalties continue to trickle in.
Not long after Kelly published “Tenth Legion,” he published an article in Faucett’s Hunting Journal. Ted Trueblood, one of the premier outdoors writers of his day whose work regularly appeared in Field & Stream, Outdoor Life and other outdoor magazines with broad circulation, took notice.
Trueblood wrote Kelly and told him he’d contacted Field & Stream and others and told them they should use his work.
“He said, you aren’t going to make much money at it but you can buy a lot of shotgun shells and whiskey with it,” Kelly quipped. “I saw a copy of “Tenth Legion” on the web not too long ago, a first edition, for $6,500. While there are some $6,500 copies, I sold my copies for $4.95, which tells you a lot about my financial abilities.”
Kelly was, for many years, an anomaly in the outdoors writing field. The focus for most magazines was “how to.” Writers were supposed to provide readers with information they could use.
An outstanding turkey hunter, Kelly knew plenty about how to pursue wily gobblers. For years he taught a school at Westervelt Lodge in Aliceville where hunters paid for a two-day, hands-on seminar and hunt. But as a writer, he preferred to write about the people who populated his world and the curiosities he’d seen during a life spent working in the woodlands as a forester and wood division manager and hunting North America’s largest game bird.
“People are the most interesting things in the damn world,” Kelly said. “What they do and why they do it and when they do it and you can talk to them and discuss it. A turkey is a very secretive piece of business and lot of the things he does we don’t understand yet.”
Kelly wrote regularly for Field & Stream for 10 or 12 years. But the requirements for their articles changed and they parted ways. These days, he writes a piece for Turkey Country every other month, an essay at the back of the magazine called “Short Spurs.” He doesn’t take any money for it but feels it’s the kind of advertising he could never afford.
Kelly had an active life as a writer during the 20 years between publication of “Tenth Legion” and his retirement from Scott. But it was after retirement that he came into his own as a writer. He has an answer for those who wonder why he did so little between the publication of Tenth Legion and his retirement.
“I was making a living,” Kelly said. “If a guy is going to make a living writing hunting and fishing stories, he better have a damn big garden and a lot of rabbit traps and a shirt factory because he’s going to starve to death unless he does.”
After publishing another book, “Better on a Rising Tide,” through a publishing house, Kelly began self-publishing his work. He goes to special events, such as the recent National Wild Turkey Federation National Convention in Nashville, and sells it directly to readers. He enjoys it and it’s more profitable than selling the rights to a publishing house.
Kelly’s readers love his ability to convey the endless nuances of a sport steeped in folklore and mythology and his deep respect for the ability of a cunning quarry to outfox the men who hunt them. He has spent his life pursuing wild turkey and they never cease to thrill and confound him.
“It’s an intellectual exercise,” Kelly said. “He can do a lot of things better than you, including fly. If you could fly and a turkey could shoot back, it’d be dead even and I’d never go because he’d whip my ass the first time.”
It’s not just the act of killing a turkey that’s alluring. It is doing it according to a method that levels the field and honors the game pursued.
“Turkey hunting done in the spring, done on gobblers, you’ve got to do it within the existing ground rules and that’s what makes it difficult,” he said.
At its very foundation, turkey hunting requires hunters to defy nature. They mimic the sound of a hen in order to draw the gobbler into shotgun range. But in nature, hens are supposed to come to gobblers. So hunters are trying to coax gobblers into behavior that runs contrary to their instincts.
“And the lovely thing about it, no matter how old you get, and all the good ones that do it will tell you this, it’s just as much fun now as it was in the beginning,” Kelly said. “A lot more because I understand a hell of a lot more about what a turkey is doing than I used to. It’s eternally new. It ain’t never ‘just another turkey.’”
Kelly, now 88, grew up in Mobile when it was a sleepy little coastal city of about 60,000 people. After World War II, he attended Auburn University on the GI bill and became a forester.
He joined the Alabama National Guard as the Korean War broke out and became an officer in the field artillery. His military service is something he treasures.
“I retired with 40 years’ service,” Kelly said. “I had a pile of fun with it. And there’s no question that I did better work because of it.”
Following Korea, Kelly went to work for Scott Paper in 1953. Much of the pine timber in the South had been cut over during the Southern lumber boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A lot of the state was cutover scrubland and worn-out farmland.
Today, because of reforestation efforts by companies like Scott and smaller private landowners, 75 percent of the land that was forested before the arrival of Europeans remains forested today, Kelly said.
The growth in Alabama’s wild game populations has paralleled the state’s reforestation. Finding a gobbler was tough sledding when Kelly’s uncle and an older cousin taught him to hunt.
“If you heard a turkey gobble it was a successful hunt,” Kelly said. “If a guy killed a turkey a year, he was good. If he killed two turkeys a year, you hung around him and maybe he’d let something slip. If he killed three turkeys a year, he’s cheating. Ain’t nobody that good.”
The irony is that the good old days weren’t so good. The deer population has now blossomed from a mere 5,000 in the 1920s to an estimated 1.6 million animals and the turkey population is estimated at more than 300,000.
“A kid starting now will have more contact with turkeys and more experience with turkeys in the first five years than I had in the first 25,” Kelly said.
Although fit and able as any man at his age, personal circumstances prevent him from doing the kind of hunting he enjoyed most of his life. But he has a disciplined regimen most writers would envy. He rented the little office above Rosie’s Bar and Grill in 1993, a year before he retired from Scott, and he’s been keeping regular office hours ever since.
“I’m 88. When you get to be this old, you ought to be dead,” Kelly deadpanned. “So I can write and get in two or three hours a day. The rest of my time is cooking, sweeping, dusting, all that sort of thing.”
He believes writing has kept him sane and active.
“When you’ve spent all of those years out on the end of the limb, you’re just not comfortable next to the trunk,” Kelly said. “You’ve got to be out there on the limb. You can’t hunt every day and you can’t play golf every day. You’ve got to have something else to do.
“I’ve got a place to go in the morning. I’m going to die but it ain’t gonna be from mowing the lawn and it ain’t gonna to be from sitting on the front porch rocking.”