Wit & Wisdom


It had only been a week earlier when Sam, Nathan, and I sat down and reminisced about our countless outdoor excursions together. Sam may have been the outdoorsman’s voice in the paper and other publications for years, but he’s also the reason I came to be an outdoorsman myself. The gratitude and appreciation I have for what he shared with me is difficult to put into words. Let’s just say it was one of the greatest gifts I ever received.

Though all the years, I had never really heard the story of how Sam found his love for hunting and fishing. It was time to learn what triggered the man who has shared his sporting exploits across the country to become a sportsman. So I asked, Sam who mentored you into the sporting world? “I don’t know how I got interested in fishing. My mother would say that occasionally I’d be in a playpen outside, and I would just get a stick and hold it at the top. Now, I didn’t know anything about fishing, but she said I would hold it and she always noted I never caught anything (laughs). I just remember liking the idea of fishing. But Frank Jr. was really my fishing connection”

When Sam says Frank you’ve got to understand Venable demographics.” Frank Jr. was my dad. He passed away early last year. But it’s heartening to be able to sit and hear stories of his impact on the people around him. Sam indulges us in the recounting of the family tree. “Frank Sr. was my dad’s brother. Then his son, Frank Jr. was my guide to fly-fishing and my first cousin. Then came Frank III. They were known in the early days as Frank the father, Frank the son, and Frank the holy terror.” I did not agree to those terms, but alas, they are part of history now, and yes, I was Frank the holy terror.

Sam was in grammar school and early high school when he started going out with my dad to fish. “Your dad, Frank Jr., and Eddie Thompson and I would go to the Tellico River at 5 a.m., and we’d basically just be fishing for a while, and then we would head to Citico and fly fish,” he says. “But you know, these were grown up guys. They were out of college, and here I was in grammar school and high school…Frank Jr. was just like a big brother to me. I always told your mom, Jane, she ruined a great relationship because for some reason after he discovered Jane, I didn’t get to go fishing anymore. Jane replaced me.” It was these early moments that undoubtedly forged a strong connection between Sam and my dad.

Sam’s dad, ironically also named Sam, might not have taught him to fish, but because of him, Sam had people who would help him continue the passion my dad instilled in him. Sam continues, “My father taught Phys. Ed at UT, and he was probably the only professor in the whole department on the men’s side that didn’t hunt and fish. But a lot of his graduate students hunted and fished, and so little Sammy got to go along a lot of times with graduate students. I think they were trying to find a way to get in with Prof. Venable.”

Somehow, the conversation wound around to talking about Sam’s leap into journalism, which, if you can believe it, is rooted in outdoor connections. “I graduated from high school in 1965, Young High School out in South Knox County—it doesn’t exist anymore, it’s a Kroger store—and I was going to major in forestry, wildlife management. And that was the only thing that I ever thought about. And in the end of my sophomore year, I already worked a summer with the Forest Service in Idaho. Forestry was no problem.” But it was the required courses, particularly chemistry and statistics, that created roadblocks for him. “I’d sailed through chemistry in high school, so I thought I could sail through in college, but no, it was a brick wall,” he says. “And statistics was something else.”

Sam had a rough go during those early semesters, he tells me, so much so that he began considering other alternatives. “I was about to fail out of school that quarter. I made the worst grades that quarter. I think I made—God, what was it—a 1.9? It was pretty bleak. And so that was when, you know, if you failed out of school, you didn’t worry about getting a job because Uncle Sam would hire you in a heartbeat. Give you a free rifle, free boots, free camouflage clothes, and a nice cruise around the world. I was in advanced ROTC at the time.” He sat in his Sigma Chi fraternity house with his head in his hands, wondering what he was going to do with his life.

“My dream career was shot. There’s no way I was going to get through those courses. And I said, ‘What am I gonna do?’ One of my fraternity brothers said, and I quote, ‘Venable, you’re so full of bullshit, you’d make a good writer. You ought to try journalism.’ I swear to God that happened.”

Sam Venable

So Sam jumped full force into what would become his lifelong career. “At some point in your junior year, you had to take the junior English exam, which consisted of going in this place and writing a theme. I went in there and took it and breezed right through it, piece of cake…I go over on a Saturday morning to check when they posted, knowing that I had passed the junior English exam. And I go over there and I said, ‘What? No, I’m reading that wrong here. Let me get a straight edge here and go across.’ Failed. That was Saturday morning. That night, that Saturday night, I was inducted into the student chapter of Sigma Delta Chi, which is a Society of Professional Journalists. I failed that test that morning, and that night, to tell you that my ego was crushed does not touch it. In the long run, it was the best thing that ever happened to me because you learn very quickly that you’ve got to write for your market. I’ve worked for a lot of different editors. And you have to learn that there’s different ways of doing things. And some people are going to like this and some people aren’t.”

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