Remembering Rudy Etchen
Editor’s Note: The hearts of clay-target shooters everywhere were saddened on August 28, 2001 with the passing of Rudy Etchen at the age of 78. One of the most proficient skeet and trap shooters to ever call out the word "Pull"—with victories and trophies garnered throughout the world (see sidebar listing)—Rudy was a man whose picture could be put alongside the words "gentleman" and sportsman" in any dictionary.
The following very personal look at Rudy—the man, his accomplishments, and his beloved personality—was written by Remington’s Art Wheaton, who had the pleasure of knowing him intimately for many years. As you will see, Art has a great deal to share about his memories of the wonderful man who will be sorely missed.
The letter dated April 18, 1991 addressed from The South Platte Fly Flingers and The Ancient Mariners arrived in my Remington office in Wilmington, Delaware outlining a plan to arrive at Colorado Springs, Colorado for a 49 mile journey to the prestigious Wigwam Club. Details included the line weights, rods and boots needed for our fishing trip on this private water on the South Platte River. It went on to say that flies would be supplied by the Salvation Army Reclaimed Department…a reference to our not needing any fancy flies of our own. Additionally, instructions were to bring shooting gear for some gun and ammo testing at the Olympic Training Center. That’s the way he sent the word to mark our calendars, my friend Rudy Etchen, one of the greatest shot gunners of all time.
Rudy’s success with the shotgun has been recapped many times in magazines like The American Rifleman (March 1953), Sports Afield (Sept 1976), Louisiana Life (Jan-Feb 1982), The American Rifleman (April 1984), The American Rifleman (July 1990), Shooters Bible (1991) and as a completed career in Trap and Field (Oct 1991), and will, for the record, be listed again here (see separate sidebar).
My personal memories of Rudy go beyond his wide acclaim as a shotgunner. To me, another wonderful side was Rudy the sportsman. His keen interest in a fly rod selection, his endless collection or accumulation of fly fishing gear, his astute selection of a western hat and his choice of a distinctive complimenting hatband, his careful consideration of a classy silver smith Indian made bola tie, or his discriminating eye and love of quality Parker shotguns, coupled with his wonderful wit made for a most unforgettable character and dear friend. A discriminating sportsman he was, particular in picking out just the right fly rod, acquiring tote bags, creels, nets, fly boxes loaded with every creation known to man, all of a particular brand, style, or shape and in great duplicity; so that a tag of being "queer for the gear" put him in a select club like myself. I want to remember him beyond his awesome shooting abilities and on a personal basis; capturing the essence of the man at ease over a glass of Crown Royal, on a bench along The South Platte, or shooting quail at the Grand National Quail Club not to mention the hours in motels, automobiles and at fancy restaurants finding our mutual interests, love for the sporting life and somewhat humble, country backgrounds (Coffeyville, Kansas and Forest City, Maine) established a common bond between us. With his father, the Daltons and Jesse all from Coffeyville, I gave him the nod on a town of recognized roots.
His keen eye for a 28-gauge C-grade Parker or the bola ties made by his Navaho friend or the conches and matching tiny buckle on his hatband that must have just the right stone and silver combination and the love of a good bird dog in action closed our 17 yr generation gap.
When he elected to make me a member of his select Bola tie "club" with the gift of a handsome silver tie inset with turquoise stones and silver bolsters, it was a magic moment, not only for the outstanding craftsmanship and design, but for the personal attention and token of friendship from a man revered by so many.
Pulling into the Wigwam Club, watching the water spill into the pools in front of "Bachelors," we spied an elderly member leaning against a split rail fence and "the Rude" (as he was affectionately called by a select few personal friends) sidled up to him and hit the electric window button for the passenger side window. From the back seat, I watched as he recognized the gentleman and proceeded to hail him across Tommy Millner through the now open window. Hey, he says, "how’s the fishing Bob?" No answer! Again, he calls out, "Bob, what’s the water height?" No answer! Bob never turned around because he did not hear a word. Now the old master gunner who has personally established the word "Huh" in Webster’s and wears two hearing aids himself hits the up button for the open window, gives the van a little gas pulling away from the fence and indignantly says to us, "the son of bitch couldn’t hear a clap of thunder." With that comment, the pot was calling the kettle black. Tommy and I couldn’t hold our laughter any longer. Never thinking, he was deaf as a stone himself, and the spontaneous remark punctuated the hypocrisy.
Later, after duffels were placed in our "assigned room" Ken and I were to attend the ritual at his lockers. I watched with amazement as we "unloaded" his two private lockers at the Wigwam Club that day, pulling Harriet’s stuff out first and setting it aside, then fumbling like an old professor wondering where he had left that little gadget he knew was in one of the many fishing bags. And then, digging way in the back of his locker he extracted a new bottle of Crown Royal, Tangeruay gin, and Black Jack for the evening cocktails, so carefully laid away waiting for this very day. Soon he switched his travelin’ western hat to the western fly fishing "lid" by extracting this remnant from the top of this bulging array of stuff. The fly fisher had just the right creases, a few flies hooked into the band and a tiny little hole in the crown adding a taste of character to an already aging, battle worn personality from sufficient doses of bug spray, torn out dry flies and grease laden finger prints. So as we unloaded the this treasure trove, the banter reached fever pitch and expectation grew high before we even cast the first "egg sucking leech."
Being with "The Rude" was an event, he had been there, and now being on the "back nine" of his love affair with the Remington Model 870, he exuded the wisdom that comes from experience, exposure, street savvy, love of the sporting life and the "been there, done that" confidence.
A trip would not be complete without visiting with Dick at "The Fly Shop" to pick up licenses and just a few flies recommended by Dick, because that’s what they seem to be "hittin' on." Not as if we needed any, but it was easier than looking through the multitude of boxes in his stuff. Most likely he had the fly in all of the colors and sizes made, if the fish were really turned on to a particular brown wooly bugger, wooly worm or streamer pattern. So it was many times for me, the routine upon arrival at Wigwam.
The fish we caught were many but who cares. It was the cocktail hour with him, Ken Waite, Dick Heckart, Bobby Brown and later Tommy Millner, all executives with deep interest in the Remington Arms Company, that made for long memories of the man, his zest for the sporting life, the aesthetics and point ability of a shotgun, and his dead pan humor. By a crackling fire snapping from a heavy dose of western pine when one didn’t need lots of heat but plenty of backdrop to a healthy discussion on the preferred method of tying your own tapered leader, of why a 6 or 7-wt in a Sage rod outperformed a Loomis on his, the South Platte River.
Long into the 2nd round of refreshments, the dinner bell provided a break in the conversational action. Hustling to the dinning room before the cook’s patience ran out, this dinner, one of our many eating adventures, began with the first entrée and a liberal application of his favorite Louisiana Bull Sauce adding the spicy taste he brought from the south. His time spent on the Louisiana oil fields contributed to his love for the hot sauce that would burn your gullet with just a nip. The dining ambiance was outstanding, with Rainbow Trout mounts decorating the walls and members’ annual "biggest fish" record that chronicled the rich history of the club. Needless to say my pal Rudy’s name appeared with frequency on a number of these club records.
Next morning as we strung our rods and found I’m missing tippet material, he says just a minute; I have some in a bag. Then out of the corner of his eye, he spied Bobby who ran the fly line through his hook keeper. Without a blink, he says we usually rig them "western style" out here and proceeds to restring the whole rod. Finally, with waders on, rods rigged, and a landing net hung on the side mirror, he, like a mother hen, proceeds to deliver each of us to a designated hole to his liking: " the barn hole," "government rock," or Harry’s.
We all fell in line, fishing the "hole" to his liking, while he proceeded to drive his van along the stream to tend or check our success with great regularity. One day on the bench at the "bench hole" we reorganized the company while he tried out my new Loomis 8-wt for distance across the tailraces and into the calm water where it widened out into the bench hole. Yup, not only a master at his game at identifying the blowing wind in corporate politics but at laying a line across that still water from the bank of mowed grass. Using the "double haul" to get the most out of the rod, commiserating over the new STS target load and the keys to its success, I found a companion, a friend and confidant and maybe even a father figure as our worlds converged with common ground, yet I was 17 years his junior.
Born in Chicago in 1923, the son of Fred Etchen, a legendary shooter in his own right as well as an instructor, and author of "Commonsense Shotgun Shooting" (copyright 1946). As a chip from the old block Rudy was his prize student, both for his natural ability and his desire to win.
Rudy’s career included a stint flying PBY’s for Uncle Sam’s navy, a traveling representative of the Smokeless Powder Division of the Hercules Powder Co and later the Remington Arms Co. leaving in 1951 to go into business for himself. On to the oil fields of Louisiana and throughout his life with a Model 870 as his sidekick, only eclipsed by his wife Harriet who he plucked from the United Airlines flight attendant ranks for a bond of over 50 years.
When Rudy passed away on August 28, 2001, the shooting world lost an icon, his family lost a dad, Harriet lost a loyal companion and I lost a pal.
Recapping an illustrious shooting career from an endless list of wins places Rudy in the top ranks of competitive shooters. Shooting accomplishments on the skeet field, trap field, and pigeon ring were unmatched, but his lightening speed with an 870 pump or 20 gauge Parker left an indelible mark on me when we took to the field at the Grand National Quail Club in Enid, Okla. As I readied for the shot on a rising quail, Rudy was marking his doubles or triples already on the ground.
His history of competitive shooting accomplishments is extensive (see highlighted insert) but to him there were a few precious memories that stand out. Enshrined in the Trapshooting Hall of Fame in 1980, one of his great accomplishments was winning the Clay Target Championship in every category for which he was eligible; sub-junior (1936, 1937), junior (1938, 1939), amateur (1952), professional/industry (1951), veteran (1989) and senior veteran (1993). Lightening struck twice for him as he broke 100 straight with the same trusty 870 pump at the 1950 Grand, the first ever at The Grand and the fifth ever registered in ATA competition, then 30 years later in 1980 at the Louisiana State Shoot. Registering over 135,000 trap targets alone, not counting his skeet and live pigeon totals, he was selected to 17 All-American teams, won Grand Doubles titles in 1942, 1943, 1945, and won High-Over-All (HOA) in 1945, and while as an industry shooter from 1946 to 1951 collected 15 Grand trophies. Then again as an amateur in 1951 he won the Clay Target, All-Around and HOA championships. Winning 34 State championships in Kansas, Tennessee, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Arizona, capturing nearly 50 Grand American trophies as well as many prestigious Columbaire championships in Cairo, Madrid, Paris, Guadalajara, Seville, and Egypt. A number of Skeet, International Skeet and International Trap wins were to his credit. From 1989 to 1999 he won four veteran and four senior veteran titles in Arizona alone and he and son Joel tied for the Parent-Child championship at the Grand with a score of 399.
|(Left to right): Art Wheaton, Rudy Etchen, Joel Etchen, Dick Heckert, Ken Waite Jr..|
To be on the 16 yard line with Rudy at the big daddy of them all, the Grand American Trapshooting Tournament I will remember for the intensity, focus and commitment each of us had many times in the presence of the master, hoping not to let him down as we edge along toward the end of the 200 bird race for the North American Clay Target Championship. With one target at a time, the grind to win with Rudy on station 3 or 4 my right and the squad tempo on my mind, attention to each targets flight path from wind effect or proper setting of the trap, all a part of the squad leaders responsibility, made my nerves hit a razor edge for each of the 100 targets. I remember him for the excitement of getting ready, standing by our lockers as he already in his 70’s methodically gathering his gear, having already noted our squad number coming up on the "Big Board"--Dick Heckert, Joel Etchen, Ken Waite Jr., Rudy and myself.
As we started the trek to the first trap field, there was a little humor along the way, and consistent interruption by shooters making their way either to their beginning posts or to the parking lot just to say hello to the old warhorse. Everybody knew Rudy, heard of Rudy or admired him for his record book performances.
On one such occasion, he’s standing with Joe Foss and Ken Waite conversing with some acquaintance, Ken spied two older gentlemen out of the corner of his eye saying, "I think that’s Rudy Etchen." With the currant conversation winding down, Ken says, "Rudy, I think those guys would like to meet you." He turns and approaches the two gentleman with hand outstretched, "Hello, I’m Rudy Etchen." Taken aback, our new friends, clearly caught off guard, acknowledge him and with a blink of the eye look to his right and stammer, "My god, are you, Joe Foss?" Quite overcome with the presence of celebrities, one fellow recovering somewhat looks at Ken, saying, "And you must be famous too?" A quick reply by Ken, "No, but I associate myself with greatness!"
Then as the assigned first trap cleared, it became all business. Stepping onto post one, checking to see if the remainder of our five-man squad was in place and the scorer had climbed into her chair with the score sheet in place, it was time. Let me see one! Now for 25 rounds it was one at a time, focus, head down, keep up the tempo, be ready when it was your turn, till I signed the scorers sheet that nerves were keen and it was the only game it town. Don’t think about that plane on its landing approach, forget to whisk the fly from the rib or forget to mount the gun to the same place on the shoulder each time…all trap shooter nemesis for a lost target. That’s the way it was at many a Grand American Trapshooting Tournament held in mid-august each year in Vandalia, Ohio.
And that signature humor noted at the Grand American was always present and could not have been better when, after landing in Casper, Wyoming and in our rental car headed for the One Shot Antelope Hunt I remarked after he had put on his cowboy hat, that mine inadvertently had been left at home. Without skipping a beat, Rudy says in a deadpan "Where d’yuh think you are going to wear it? New York?" There it was, that wonderful spontaneous one liner that stopped you cold. That was the start of my indoctrination and ultimate initiation into the One Shot Antelope Club. My dance around the campfire, our initiation ceremony and joke telling escapade in front of the whole crowd on awards night, were part of the Rudy memories I will treasure.
His role as consultant to the President of Remington Arms Company, Inc. put us together at the Shot Show, our annual Outdoor Writers Seminar and The National Association of Sporting Goods Wholesalers Show as well at our Ilion, New York and Lonoke, Arkansas plants and their respective gun clubs. Whether we dined in the host hotel or at some fancy local restaurant, it was a lunchtime or dinner adventure.
As the Master gunner, he and I were given the task of developing the STS target load with properties for reloading and performance at both the 16 yard and 27 yard line to put Remington back in the target load market where their absence for over 25 years became a worthy assignment near and dear to our heart. Testing on his home grounds at the Phoenix Gun Club with Dan Bonillas, Dan Orlick and other accomplished competitive shooters was followed by dinner at the Pink Pony with some of us facing the "Orlick cut," a humongous slab of prime rib that would serve four, and ordered at his insistence. In his element, Rudy always knew a spot for Mexican food and Los Olivas in Scottsdale was a favorite, with Rudy doing the ordering we always found an endless supply of hor d’orves. One time in Ilion, we all settled in for an evening dinner with a number of us selecting the veal chop, not always available in every restaurant. As the evening flowed on with another round of drinks and finally a wine selection, it came time for the entrée. The "Rude" was the last to be served and as each of us eyed our own fine 1 1/2-inch of chop, he looked at a scrawny, thin tag end piece, the runt of the litter. As the waiter asked if we needed anything else, he says, "What’s this?" In response the waiter says, "Luck of the draw." And with that remark he comes out of his seat. "Take it back, he exclaimed, this is not acceptable. What do you mean, luck of the draw? I’m not eating this thing." There was not a straight face at the table. Not only had he been caught unawares, but little did our dutiful server realize that such a remark was fighting words to Rudy.
Time after time after the menus were delivered he would ask what’s good today and before you knew it, he had established a relationship with the waiter that tested our patience. He loved to eat as well as explore in detail key entrée’s and possibly adding a little sample from two others. It started at the maitre d', looking for that special table, in the corner, overlooking the lake, a booth or table or one that his favorite waitress covered. An eating adventure, never ending till after the desert selection and final good by’s to all his newfound friends.
No tribute to Rudy would be complete without mention of his Hollywood years. No, he wasn’t a movie star but associated with many. The likes of Bob Stack, Errol Flynn, and Ward Bond etc were his shooting buddies and everyday hang a rounds. Whether it was Roy Rogers, Roy Clark, Marshall Teague, John Laughlin or some other celebrity, Rudy was recognized for his tremendous ability with the shotgun and his wonderful gift of gab, mixing with any group and establishing relationships that lived on for many years.
We, in the Remington family will find our events missing something. We grew to appreciate the man, his character, his big heart and being in his wonderful company. Yes Rudy, you were one of the best with the scattergun, made us all competitors on and off the field, and moved the bar up in the Remington winner’s circle. We thank you for your contribution toward making ours a better company; in the products we make, the customers we serve and our responsibility for its stewardship. Your humor lives on as we retell those stories over a cocktail and roaring fire. I will miss you, old pal.
(Epilogue) A packaged arrived the other day. Upon opening, I found Rudy’s Wigwam western hat just like it come out of his locker, weather worn, a leather band with silver conches, tied in the back with rawhide. It’s the same hat pictured here-Rudy with the white sweater. This was a wonderful gift from Harriet and son, Joel, and a treasure for my den. Tough keeping water from the eyes!
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