On a sunny afternoon in November 2009, Herald photo chief John Stennes and I had the pleasure of spending a few hours with Leon Wilson.
Just shy of his 101st birthday, Wilson was the oldest licensed deer hunter in Minnesota at that point, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
Leon grew up in Williams, Minn., and was living on his own in nearby Baudette, Minn., at the time Stennes and I did the story at the home of his daughter and son-in-law, Judi and Don Senkyr of Williams. Leon had shot two deer the previous fall, but luck wasn’t on his side that Sunday afternoon in 2009 when something got caught in “the goldarn chamber” of his rifle, and it wouldn’t fire.
He shared lots of stories that afternoon.
Tuesday, I received an email from Jamie Johnson of Baudette informing me that Leon — Jamie’s great-grandfather — had died July 18. Leon’s funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. today at Bethany Lutheran Church in Williams. He was 103 years old.
In sharing the news of Leon’s passing, Johnson paid what I consider to be a great compliment by saying several copies of my story were on hand at last night’s visitation and also would be on display at today’s funeral.
As friends and family pay their final respects to Leon today, I’m sure there’ll be lots of stories told and laughs shared along with the tears. It also seemed like a good opportunity to revisit the story I wrote about Leon in November 2009.
You’ll find the story in its entirety here. It appeared in the Herald on Nov. 10, 2009:
Deer hunting’s elder statesman
Just shy of his 101st birthday, Leon Wilson of Baudette, Minn., is the oldest licensed deer hunter in Minnesota, the DNR says
By Brad Dokken
Herald Staff Writer
WILLIAMS, Minn. – Leon Wilson didn’t fight in World War II because Uncle Sam said he was a bit too long in the tooth.
“They told me I was too old and couldn’t take it,” Wilson recalled Monday.
He might have been too old for World War II in 1943, but less than two months shy of his 101st birthday, Wilson’s not too old to hunt deer. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Wilson, of Baudette, Minn., is the oldest licensed deer hunter in the state.
He’ll be 101 on Dec. 24. And judging by the sparkle in his blue eyes, the excitement of another deer season still gets the blood flowing.
It’s been that way, Wilson says, since he first hunted.
But he’s not sure when that was, exactly.
“Oh Lord, I don’t know,” Wilson said Monday afternoon in the home of his daughter and son-in-law, Judi and Don Senkyr, who live near Williams. “I was maybe 10 years old.”
Little did he know he’d still be hunting 90 years later.
“I never expected to make it to 100, believe me,” Wilson said.
On a roll
Wilson’s age certainly hasn’t been a detriment to success. Since 2000, he’s hunted in a heated stand on the Senkyr property. He shot two deer last year and one deer in 2007 using the same 6mm rifle he’s hunted with for more than 30 years.
As for this year well, Wilson said, he had a chance Sunday afternoon.
“My rifle fouled me up,” he said. “I got something in the goldarn chamber. It wasn’t closing all the way, and if it ain’t closing, it won’t shoot.”
Just like any good deer hunter, Wilson’s got a theory about what went wrong. The past two years, he said, he went to church those Sunday mornings during deer season and ended up shooting deer in the afternoon.
This past Sunday, Wilson said, he didn’t go to church. And look what happened?
The deer’s still out there. “That’s where I made the mistake,” Wilson said. “He was quite a ways away, but I was shaky compared to what I’ve been. At my age, I shouldn’t get buck fever. I just wasn’t on yesterday.”
There haven’t been too many off days during all of those deer seasons. Ask Wilson how many deer he’s shot over the years, and he just laughs.
“I wouldn’t even try to guess,” he said.
Growing up near Williams, the second oldest in a family of seven boys and four girls, Wilson said deer hunting wasn’t so much a form of recreation as a means of survival.
“Back during the Depression in the ‘30s, I kept meat on the table for four families,” he said. “It was a different time, and we used the deer. We needed the meat.”
Wilson said he credits his longevity to his mother, who lived to be 94 years old.
“She said, ‘Whatever you do, keep moving,’” Wilson said. “Don’t sit down in that chair.”
And he rarely does. Wilson regularly goes to dances Friday nights and he still drives a car. He’s also a pretty mean bowler, although an injury several years ago forced him to learn how to bowl left handed. He bowled a 224 at the age of 99.
He still lives on his own in Baudette, where another daughter, Grace Sonstegard, has him over for dinner every day and sends supper home for him at night. Second wife, May, died two years ago.
“I live alone, but Grace takes good care of me,” Wilson said.
On his second cat
Daughter Judi said her dad also has had luck on his side in surpassing the century mark. If a cat indeed has nine lives, she said, her dad is now on his second cat.
“He’s had so many things that happened,” she said.
Wilson, who retired at age 69 after 40 years with the Lake of the Woods County Highway Department, said he almost died in 1943 after contracting pneumonia while driving an unheated snow-plow. The disease nearly destroyed one of his lungs, and if the nurse hadn’t administered strong doses of sulfur until the doctor arrived, Wilson said he probably would have died.
“He told me I owed her my life,” Wilson said, his eyes tearing up at the memory.
Twice, Wilson said, he had vehicles fall on him while working underneath. He escaped serious injury both times.
“A guy should know better than to have the second one fall on him,” he said.
Then there was the deer season in the early 1990s when Wilson pounded nails into two adjacent jack pine trees so he could climb up for a better view of the surroundings. He was getting ready to come down when one of the nails pulled out and he fell 16 feet to the ground.
He would have been about 85 years old, give or take.
“I was shook up and didn’t know if I was going to get up or not,” Wilson said. He’d lost his glasses in the fall and the impact apparently had ruined the scope on his rifle.
“I came walking home and my daughter said, ‘Where are your glasses?’” Wilson said. They went back with a flashlight and found the glasses.
“Well, when I found my glasses, there was nothing wrong with the scope,” he said.
Wilson said the advent of the scope is probably the biggest change he’s seen since he started hunting deer. That, and the new rifle he got before retiring.
“After I got that new rifle with the scope, the deer didn’t have a chance,” Wilson said.
He has the evidence to back that up.
“I’ve got 17 or 19 sets of horns since I turned 70,” Wilson said of the bucks he’s shot. “I had a lot more before that, but I never saved them. After I was 70, I started saving them.”
He has yet to top, though, the 14-point buck he shot years ago. Besides an impressive rack, the buck weighed 238 pounds field-dressed.
But he’ll keep trying. Except for Mondays and Wednesdays; those are the days he and daughter Judi play pinochle at the senior center in Williams.
“Pinochle comes before hunting,” Wilson said. “I figured I’d take our card playing days off. I only hunted three-four days last year, and I shot two deer.”
There were years, Wilson said, when he hunted in 20 – to 25-below zero temperatures wondering why he was that dumb.
“But I came back again the next year,” he said.
That’s just the way it is when you’re the oldest deer hunter in Minnesota.
Reach Dokken at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.