Ron Schara: A Product of Nature & Nurture

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Outdoor writer and television personality Ron Schara, creator and star of Minnesota Bound, is a product of nature and nurture.

“Words and wildlife have always been a big part of my life,” said Schara, who is the founder of Ron Schara Productions based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

His Grandpa Clate Dickens was a pipe-smoking story teller who began regaling Schara with tales, some of them tall, when the boy was still small enough to sit in his lap. His Grandmother Blanche and his parents were avid anglers who whiled away summer afternoons on the banks of the Mississippi River pursuing fish destined for the frying pan. In the spring, they foraged for morel mushrooms. In the fall, they gathered walnuts. His mother’s brothers were fly fishermen who taught Schara how to handle a fly rod at the age most kids were learning to ride a bike.

“My family spent time outdoors together,” Schara said. “I learned from their example and their passion.” It is a tradition that he carried on with his daughters Laura and Simone.

Schara’s childhood playground was northeastern Iowa in the fields and woodlands around Postville, a town with a population of about 1,500.

“When people think of Iowa, they think of flat cornfields with the smell of hog manure hanging in the air, but where I grew up there were not only fields but limestone bluffs, trout streams and vast timber—and it was all just a few miles from the Mississippi River,” Schara said. “I could walk out my back door and hunt for deer, wild turkey, rabbits, squirrels and pheasants. I hunted every chance I got.”

While he hunted a variety of species growing up, squirrel hunting looms large in his memories.

“I spent many a sleepless night anticipating the opening day of Iowa’s squirrel season,” Schara said. “I always told people I was the best squirrel hunter in Allamakee County.”

He credits his father, who was a carpenter, with introducing him to the ethics of responsible hunting on their trips to the woods in search of squirrels.

“My dad didn’t have a chance at a high school education, but he was very intelligent when it came to life and nature,” Schara said.

His dad instructed Schara to hunt squirrels with a single shot .22 because “each shot needed to count.” He also taught Schara to shoot squirrels on the limb and not in the nest so the squirrels would fall from the tree and the meat wouldn’t be lost because it couldn’t be retrieved. Schara learned to immediately clean the animals as soon as they hit the ground so the meat would be ready for his mother to prepare for the family. According to his father taking an animal’s life was a serious responsibility and wasting meat was disrespectful.

“My dad used squirrels to teach me all the big lessons about hunting,” Schara said. “I have no patience for people who call them ‘tree rats’ and dismiss them as lesser game. They are the ideal species to introduce kids to hunting and the outdoors.”

Over time, he graduated to bigger game. When Schara was a senior in high school, he wanted to hunt deer. To challenge himself, he set out to become a bow hunter. He bagged a buck—five years later.

“I knew teaching myself to bow hunt would be a challenge, but I didn’t think it would take me that long to get a deer,” he said laughing.

At the same time Schara was developing his outdoor skill set, he discovered he also had a passion and talent for music. As a high school senior, he sang in a local night club earning $45 per week. His repertoire included standards from the 40s and 50s as well as early Elvis Presley.

“I would sing at the night club and then go fishing during the day,” he said. “It was the best of both worlds.”

He was also working as a Ford dealership flunky changing oil and pulling in another $45 per week.

“As a high school senior in 1960, I was earning $90 per week,” he said. “I’ve never been richer in my life.

Although he earned a vocal music scholarship to Minneapolis’s MacPhail College of Music, he chose to attend Iowa State University and study fish and wildlife biology. He planned to become a wildlife biologist or game warden until he took a writing course required for all wildlife majors. A light bulb went off when Schara realized that as an outdoor writer he could tell people what he was learning in his wildlife classes, but the young man wasn’t sure he had the communication chops necessary to be a journalist.

“I asked the professor if he thought I could write,” Schara said. “He assured me I had the ability to become journalist.”

As a land grant university, Iowa State offered a technical journalism program that allowed students to pursue a journalism degree while declaring a minor in a specific field such as engineering, political science or, in Schara’s case, fish and wildlife biology.

“The coursework gave you a basic journalism degree and an area of specialization so you had something to say,” Schara said.

From print to television

In January 1968, after a stint at the South Dakota Game and Fish Department, Schara joined the staff of the Minneapolis Tribune as its first full-time outdoor editor. Tasked with writing the Sunday outdoor page and a mid-week column, Schara traveled the countryside getting to know the people and places that define Minnesota.

“Minnesota by geologic accident is positioned over two northern wildernesses that run into Canada,” Schara said. “When the glaciers retreated they left thousands of natural lakes in their wake. Minnesota is home to deciduous forests, hardwood forests and pot hole pocked short grass prairie.”

In addition, the state boasts limestone bluffs, trout streams and the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers. Unlike the southern states, Minnesota has four distinct seasons each with its own invigorating characteristics.

“Minnesota has a variety of habitats and a variety of opportunities,” Schara said. “When you add it all up, it makes Minnesota a great place to live.

“Of course, I don’t say that in February—ice fishing is not one of my favorites,” he deadpanned.

The veteran newspaperman had 20-plus years print experience under his belt when the news director at KARE, the local NBC affiliate, called. The conversation changed the course of Schara’s career.

The news director was a hunter and angler who wanted to enhance coverage of those traditional pursuits, but he knew his sports reporters lacked the knowledge to do the subject justice. He also knew hunting and fishing were such an integral part of the state’s history and culture that the viewers wouldn’t tolerate mistakes, so he reached out to an expert. He asked Schara to do to two, two-minute segments per month.

“Coming from print, I relished the opportunity to do television,” Schara said. “In print, I had words, quotes, still photos and color to tell the stories. In television, I had my words, their words, moving pictures with which I could show scenes instead of describe them as well as sounds and music. It was a much more dramatic way to bring stories to life.”

With all these new tools at his disposal, the newspaperman began telling stories for the camera. The viewers responded so positively that he was encouraged to pitch the idea for a 30-minute weekly show called Minnesota Bound. The station manager, who was not an outdoorsman, initially turned it down because he underestimated the interest—and advertising support—available.

Then, he reconsidered and asked Schara if he could produce the show.

“I lied and said, ‘Yes,’” Schara said laughing. “I didn’t even know how to turn on a tv camera at the time.”

Although Schara hadn’t yet mastered the skills of television production, he was confident in his ability to tell stories and in his ability to perform.

“I watched outdoor television from its beginnings,” Schara said. “Because of all those years performing in night clubs, I just felt like I could connect with an audience better than some of those guys who had their own shows.”

From the outset Minnesota Bound set itself apart because it was a scripted show that focused on people and places not just the act of catching a fish or harvesting an animal.

“I have always been a fan of 60 Minutes because they tell compelling stories with enough diversity that there is something for everyone,” Schara said. “On Minnesota Bound, we may lead with a hunting or fishing story, but it may be followed up by a story about an interesting state park or the ‘wounded’ behavior of a killdeer protecting its nest. We try to engage people with different interests by offering different stories.”

While the outdoors provides the context for all of the stories, Schara has never forgotten that people respond to people.

“I remind the staff that people are not tuning in to watch us catch a damn fish,” Schara said. “They tune in to watch us because we have interesting people in the boat—and, if we happen to catch a fish or two, then that just makes the whole thing better.”

In his career, guests have included the astronaut Wally Schirra, the actor Jack Lemmon and baseball legends Ted Williams and Billy Martin.

Schara has also been able to nurture relationships with his guests and interview subjects which have led to additional opportunities. For instance, Schara’s outdoor calendar business, which is managed by his daughter Simone, came from a discussion with Schirra. At the time Schirra went fishing with Schara, the astronaut served on the board of directors of the nation’s largest calendar company that was based in the Twin Cities.

The Back Roads with Ron and Raven, Schara’s show on ESPN2, sprang from a conversation with Jerry McKinnis, a pioneering television angler who Schara had interviewed for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. When their paths crossed again at a trade show Schara mentioned that they were in the same business now because he had a regional television show. McKinnis asked for a tape and was so impressed with what he saw that he shared it with the decision-makers at ESPN. The broadcasters called Schara with an offer for a show with the caveat that Raven, Schara’s black lab be included.

People also tune in to watch Raven, who Schara characterizes as the true star of the shows. There have been three Ravens in Schara’s 20 year run, but her initial inclusion in broadcasting was a happy accident. According to Schara, it was a cold day in February 1995 and he was shooting wraps, the closing segment of Minnesota Bound #1, at his house. A lifelong fan of black labs, he had the young dog in the house out of the weather.

“I named her Raven because she was black, birdy and smart just like a raven,” Schara said.

The camera man, Schara and his wife were brainstorming the composition of the closing shots, when Schara’s wife suggested including Raven. Schara called the dog over. The camera man took a test shot and declared, “She looks like a black blanket with eyes,” and asked if Schara had something colorful to put on the dog.

Schara recalled thinking that the camera man, who was a city boy from Pittsburgh, had lost his mind and thought that Minnesotans dressed their hunting dogs in costumes. Nonetheless he made a pass through the house and a red farmer’s handkerchief hanging on a hat rack caught his eye. He tied the bandanna around Raven’s neck adding a pop of color and birthing a canine star.

“It was a magical moment and neither one of us knew what we were creating,” Schara said.

At one point Raven became so popular that when Schara decided to raise puppies with the original Raven, he created a raffle to give people a chance to own one. In order to be considered, viewers had to make a donation to a conservation cause.

“Raven raised more than $80,000 for conservation,” Schara said.

Then the donation was matched by two grants from Pheasants Forever for a total of $250,000. The money, along with other donations, was used to purchase the 700-acre Two Rivers Wildlife Area. Raven is listed on the thank you placard along with all of the other donors.

Raven’s conservation contribution is just one of the many stories in Schara’s repository. He had the privilege of taking his father on his last fishing trip. He was a guest on a fishing boat skippered by a man who had no arms nor hands, but had learned to use his feet to do everything necessary to guide fishing excursions including starting the motor, casting the line and taking fish off the hook. Schara has watched the sun rise in the Amazon River basin and the sun set on the African plains.

“After all of these years, I still get excited when I know I have a good story to tell,” Schara said. “I’ve gotten my share of awards through the years, but they don’t mean a lot to me. My biggest award is holding on to a time slot for 22 years in a competitive television market. I’ve done that by bringing viewers stories they enjoy.”

He continued, “I’m still on the air because we get ‘eyeballs,’ if you don’t do that in television you’re gone—and if you don’t keep doing what you love doing then you quit living.”

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