George Dunklin and the ducks of Five Oaks

Duck season begins Saturday in Arkansas, a high holy day for many residents of this state.

A number of the state’s hunters (and the out-of-state visitors) will head in the direction of the Bayou Meto, a slow-moving stream that begins in northern Pulaski County near the Little Rock Air Force Base. The bayou winds toward the southeast for almost 150 miles before emptying into the Arkansas River southwest of Gillett.

“The origins of the bayou’s name are a matter of debate,” Guy Lancaster writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Some early French documents dub it ‘Bayou Metre,’ perhaps indicative of a supposed measured depth of one meter, though Judge U.M. Rose put forward the hypothesis that the name is derived from the French ‘mi terre’ or ‘minor land.’ Until the early 20th century, spelling variants remained common with ‘Bayou Metoe’ being used with some frequency.”

The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission began acquiring land in 1948 along the bayou for a wildlife management area. The Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area, which covers 33,832 acres, generally is recognized as the top public duck hunting area in the country. It’s also among the largest state-owned wildlife conservation areas in America.

Almost 13,000 acres of the WMA are flooded each fall to attract ducks. There are two waterfowl rest areas, Halowell Reservoir and the Wrape Plantation. Up to 2,000 hunters converge on the area on Saturdays during the duck season.

Bayou Meto is surrounded by exclusive private duck clubs. One of those is George Dunklin Jr.’s Five Oaks, which attracts hunters from across the country and will be filled this weekend.

In the current issue of Arkansas Life magazine, there’s a cover story on Dunklin that I had the honor of writing.

In January 2009, Dunklin was named the Budweiser Conservationist of the Year. The award, sponsored by Budweiser and the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, recognizes those who have made major contributions in the area of wildlife conservation. Dunklin received a $50,000 grant for winning the award and immediately plowed it back into Bayou Meto WMA improvements.

On June 30, Dunklin’s seven-year term on the Game & Fish Commission ended. He was the chairman during his final year and a leading proponent for finding new ways to attract migrating ducks to Arkansas.

In May, Dunklin will become the president of Ducks Unlimited, the world’s most famous waterfowl conservation organization. He will be the 42nd president in DU history and only the second from Arkansas. E.L. McHaney of Little Rock became the DU president in 1948.

DU began in 1937 during the Dust Bowl era as waterfowl numbers plunged due to drought. A small group of hunters formed DU to raise money to preserve breeding areas in the prairies of Canada. From 1937-83, all funds raised were spent in Canada. Since 1983, money has been spent for waterfowl conservation efforts in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

DU now has more than 550,000 adult members and about 46,000 youth members. Local chapters host more than 4,400 fund-raising events each year, meaning that Dunklin will spend a lot of time away from his beloved Five Oaks during his two years as president.

Since its founding, DU has helped conserve 6.3 million acres in Canada, 4.5 million acres in the United States and 1.8 million acres in Mexico.

The United States has lost more than half of its original wetlands and continues to lose an average of 80,000 wetland acres annually. When soybean prices soared in the 1970s, thousands of acres of wetlands in east Arkansas were drained for row-crop agriculture. Much of that was marginal farmland, at best.

Dunklin has planted thousands of hardwood trees on his farm through the years.

“We’ll keep doing that for the rest of my days,” he says. “I won’t live to see some of these trees mature, but I really enjoy watching them grow from one year to the next. We want lots of diversity.”

During his seven years on the Game & Fish Commission, Dunklin steered funds to the Bayou Meto WMA for needed improvements. He calls it the “crown jewel of all commission properties.”

One management improvement on the WMA has been a mulching project designed to make land more attractive for migrating waterfowl. Millions of dollars also were spent improving drainage systems.

Dunklin didn’t set out to be a farmer and a nationally recognized conservationist. The thing he cared about most when growing up at Pine Bluff was tennis.

His father, George Dunklin Sr., won the state singles championship nine times between 1939 and 1958. The elder Dunklin was the top-ranked player in the Southern Tennis Association for almost a decade in the late 1940s and early 1950s and was a semifinalist in the national senior championship in 1968.

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Paul Greenberg once wrote of Dunklin Sr.: “George Dunklin’s biggest win — it’s not easy choosing — was probably his triumph in the Southwest Open at Little Rock in 1947. He was the ‘old man’ of the tournament since he’d taken a few years off from tennis to win World War II, but he still outpointed all the collegiate contenders. That was just before Jack Kramer revolutionized the game, and some time before its fall into ill-mannered modernity in the age of McEnroe.

“In 1947, tennis was still inconceivable played in anything but whites. My personal theory is that the long decline of tennis, and maybe that of Western civilization, set in with colorization, which has had much the same effect on tennis as on Bogart movies: deplorable.

“George Dunklin’s toughest match, however, may have been in Pine Bluff on the old clay courts at Oaklawn Park. He had come back from the University of Virginia to take on the University of Arkansas’ top player, Frank McElwee. In those days they played three out of five sets, not a mere two out of three, and this contest went all the way through a shimmering hot day in June of 1939. Dunklin and McElwee had to play not only each other but the heat and humidity.

“It was the kind of match made for scrapbooks and reminiscences. Friends and admirers turned out in convivial numbers. The fierce competitiveness of the game was decorously covered by exquisite manners and hushed voices. Heads turned as if they were choreographed during the sustained exchanges.

“Tennis was an amateur sport then, that is, a sport rather than a business. The game was played from the baseline in long, steady returns from the backcourt. Flash was considered almost bad form, complaints unheard of and a player could be sidelined for a smirk. There was still a code to uphold.

“The memory of that match … still radiates. Who won? Not that it matters — the game was all then — but young Dunklin did, if memory and records serve. He usually did. Among his more than a score of championships are nine state singles titles over three decades (the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s). He likes to repeat a friend’s description of himself: ‘The Jimmy Connors of the Stone Age.’

“Even more than his titles, it is the persistence of George Dunklin’s performance that impresses. And the good humor. Dunklin always has been a champion win or lose, though in his case it’s usually win. Whether on clay at Oaklawn Park during a long-ago summer or senior tennis on grass at Forest Hills, he always provided interest.

“George Dunklin never claimed any great talent (gentlemanly modesty, surely) but says his life on the court indicates what application can accomplish. Omnia vincit labor, or effort conquers all. But the effort must never show. That’s the code.”

As you can see, Dunklin Jr. had much to live up to. His mother also was a force of nature. Her list of accomplishments made her the epitome of the accomplished Southern belle. The daughter of Mary Boone Black and the rice-growing pioneer Lester Asher Black of DeWitt, Mary Elisabeth “Lib” Dunklin graduated from Gulf Park College in Mississippi and then made her debut at the Memphis Country Club. She was a princess to the queen of Memphis’ famed Cotton Carnival.

Her marriage to George Sr. occurred at the Black family home in DeWitt in May 1949. They had met in Memphis, where George Sr. was playing tennis. She went on to become the chairman of M.E. Black Farms Inc. and a majority owner of the Bank of West Memphis. She even was a founder of an offshore oil drilling operation.

“Lib” Dunklin served on the board of Kenmore, the Virginia home of George Washington’s sister, and was a member of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America. She was a Junior League member in both Pine Bluff and Memphis and was appointed by Gov. Dale Bumpers and Gov. Bill Clinton to the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion Commission. She joined Helen Walton in founding the National Museum of Women of the Arts in Washington and served on the board of the Pine Bluff Symphony League.

George Dunklin Sr. and “Lib” Dunklin died just 10 days apart in May 2007 at age 89.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, Dunklin Sr. had returned to Arkansas to help run the family business. That business was Planters Cotton Oil Mill at a time when cotton was king in the eastern half of Arkansas. He worked for the company for more than 60 years until his retirement in 2005. Dunklin Sr. was the president of the National Cottonseed Association and a member of the Cotton Advisory Committee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Dunklin Jr. played football and basketball as a child but found himself concentrating on tennis by the ninth grade. Coming out of high school, he considered three colleges — Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia (his father, a member of Pine Bluff’s First Baptist Church, had given the school a substantial contribution for a tennis complex), Ole Miss and what was then Memphis State University. He wound up in Memphis.

The younger Dunklin’s last major tennis tournament was the Arkansas State Closed in 1980, the tournament his father had won nine times. Dunklin Jr. captured the title and began to think about new goals in life. His friends were surprised when he chose to move to Arkansas County to operate the farm that had been in his mother’s family for years.

Dunklin had dabbled in radio during his college years, helping produce a show taped in Memphis that featured the top 80 songs of 1980. Called “Countdown ’80,” the program aired on almost 60 stations. He decided that his future wasn’t in radio. After attending the 1980 U.S. Open in New York as a spectator, Dunklin convinced his mother to let him take over one of the family’s farms even though he knew nothing about farming or timber management.

Naturally smart, Dunklin learned along the way. Extra income came from leasing part of the land to the Memphis Furniture Co. for duck hunting. That deal was cut during lunch one day at the Memphis Country Club. The company had built what’s now Five Oaks Lodge in 1976 as a place to entertain its clients, and Jerry Jones had built a club down the road in 1982 (seven years before he bought the Dallas Cowboys) based on the design of the 1976 lodge.

In 1983, Memphis Furniture Co. lost its largest account, Sears Roebuck & Co., and decided to sell the lodge.

George Dunklin Jr. bought it.

The rest, as they say, is history. He has developed one of the finest duck hunting operations in the world while becoming an icon among waterfowl conservationists for his efforts to restore this piece of the Mississippi Flyway.

Given Dunklin’s background, it’s fitting that there’s a tennis court at Five Oaks.

Tennis, though, will have to take a back seat for now.

It’s duck season in Arkansas.

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