When Jack Crockford died a couple of months ago at the age of 88, the passing was not widely marked. I'd venture to say even the vast majority of those whose lives he has influenced never heard of the man.
That's not too surprising. I met him once and found him modest, unassuming and quite content to let his largely forgotten accomplishments speak for themselves.
Still, it's a shame he was not more widely known, especially by hunters, conservationists and wildlife managers. For current and future generations of people concerned with wildlife and the outdoors, Jack Crockford was a major role player.
If you've ever hunted deer in the state of Georgia or plan to do so in the future, thank Jack Crockford for the privilege. If you've ever needed to examine, relocate or otherwise handle wild animals in the safest and least traumatic way possible, thank Jack Crockford you can.
Crockford, a Michigan native, was hired as a field biologist by the Georgia Game and Fish Commission (now the Department of Natural Resources) in 1947. Wildlife biology was a new specialization at the time and his degree from Michigan State University was one of the first ever issued in the U.S. He immediately began making "waves" and history.
Recognizing the need and the potential to reestablish Georgia's badly depleted white-tailed deer herd, Crockford pressed Game and Fish bosses diligently for their support in funding a statewide deer restoration program. By 1950, he had succeeded. Live-trapping of deer began in the North Georgia mountains and on several of the state's privately owned coastal islands where deer numbers were high. Crockford took a hands-on approach to the project. Flying a state-owned plane, he frequently flew from one island to another, often landing on the beach at low tide and sleeping in the woods.
A look at Georgia's deer herd today makes the success of the reestablishment program obvious, and it was during the early years of deer restoration that Crockford hit upon an idea that would revolutionize wildlife management not only in Georgia, but worldwide.
In 1952, Crockford began work on a dart gun that could be used in the deer restoration project. After much trial and error he successfully modified a commercial air rifle and developed a primitive dart. Later he developed the more sophisticated projectile that became known as the "flying syringe." Scientists at the University of Georgia developed a suitable drug that could tranquilize and immobilize deer without killing them and soon Crockford's "Cap-Chur" gun gained international attention. Wildlife agencies throughout the world began requesting rifles that would tranquilize everything from antelope to elephants. Today, the Cap-Chur gun is still a primary means of safely immobilizing large and/or dangerous wildlife.
Crockford went on to eventually head the Game and Fish Commission and, in Renaissance-man fashion, develop a reputation as a fine craftsman whose knives and muzzleloading rifles were prized by collectors. One of his flintlocks hung in the oval office during Jimmy Carter's presidency. The Crockford-Pigeon Mountain Wildlife Management Area near Lafayette, Ga., is named in his honor and he is a member of the Georgia Outdoor Writers Association's Hunting and Fishing Hall of Fame.
During World War Two, Crockford served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the China/Burma/India Theater. He flew 423 combat missions totaling 795 combat hours, flying supplies into key battle areas and wounded soldiers out, often using crude landing strips in hazardous weather conditions. In an unarmed cargo plane, he often dodged Japanese Zeroes by hiding in cloud cover. He was awarded, among other medals, the Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster.
In a society where the deaths of rock stars, sports heroes and even the notorious are lamented and talked about for weeks on end, understated heroes like Jack Crockford often pass from life largely unnoticed.
That's too bad. We owe them much.
If you think about it, give old Jack a thought next time you shoot a deer or watch "Animal Planet."
Questions? Comments? E-mail Bob Kornegay at firstname.lastname@example.org