A Principle-Driven Life
Walter W. Fondren, III (1936-2010)
By Patrick Murray, CCA President
It was a day that we all knew would come, but it was still a shock when news came that the conservation community had lost Walter W. Fondren III. Walter had the knees and hands of a man who had spent his life playing world-class football, working on a ranch under the Texas sun, and fishing all over the world in every kind of weather. He wore all that mileage with pride, and in the office, we would pity any doctor (or friend or family member for that matter) who tried to tell him to slow down. The only time he ever seemed to slow was to talk about his grandkids, fishing, CCA or his beloved Texas Longhorns.
Walter was the kind of man who made you think he might just live forever by sheer force of will. I am reminded that, upon hearing of the death of Teddy Roosevelt, US Vice President Thomas Marshall appropriately said, “Death had to take him in his sleep, for if he was awake, there’d have been a fight.” He may just as well have been talking about Walter.
With his passing, we all lost a legend and guiding force in marine resource conservation. Walter was one of those rare individuals who not only saw the whole chessboard, he saw multiple moves if not many matches in advance. Most importantly, he had the drive, determination and skill to put that vision into action.
The breadth and diversity of accomplishments in Walter’s life clearly show that he managed to cram three or four full lives into one. His life was marked with athleticism, vigor, focus and primarily, vision. Beyond his legendary football career, unmatched fishing prowess and enviable expertise in golf, he managed to redefine the role of the recreational angler in the marine conservation arena. He was aggressive in his view that the recreational angler is not just a consumer, but rather a steward. One who sees the value in utilizing the resource but would never put utilization ahead of conservation.
Walter saw not only the importance of anglers’ involvement in shaping the management system, but more importantly, our real obligation to do it. I think it is safe to say that he did not appreciate a passive approach. Like so many, his time in the federal fisheries management system frustrated him, but he determined that the best way to improve it was not to protest it or ignore it, but to change it from the inside. This type of meaningful change was his passion. Walter served on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council from 1982 through 1992; was Council Chairman from 1989 to 1990 and served on the Billfish Advisory Committee since 1994. He was the first to tell you the folly of the Councils but also the first to point out the importance of all our involvement in them.
Through all of his experiences and particularly his victories, Walter never wanted the spotlight. He shunned attention, but even with his humble approach to public life, he was honored with the Harvey Weil Sportsman/Conservationist Award and the prestigious Charles H. Lyles Award from the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission in the recognition of a lifetime of exceptional contributions on behalf of marine conservation. He was inducted into the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame, and in a lasting tribute, was named one of the 50 Legends of Fishing by Field and Stream magazine. In 2006, he was also the first recipient of the CCA Lifetime Achievement Award.
Walter’s incredible life left behind a literal mountain of trophies, awards and achievements but none so great and lasting as the marine resource conservation association he founded and guided for more than 30 years. To this day, CCA is a living, breathing tribute to Walter’s unparalleled vision. Could anyone have imagined in 1977 that a fledgling association called the Gulf Coast Conservation Association would, or even could, grow to have 19 state chapters, more than 220 local chapters, 200 National Board members, and almost a thousand volunteers and supporters?
Walter did. He not only imagined it, he did it.
It is impossible to quantify all Walter accomplished for marine conservation and recreational fishing, but I believe there are three key principles that drove his life and, in turn, became an integral part of the framework of CCA and the organization’s conservation culture—inclusive, visionary and principle-driven. Walter embodied these values, and three of my favorite Walter quotes sum them up perfectly.
“If you want to have a big dance, get a big dance committee.”
I am not sure if Walter originated this quote, but he clearly made it a reality. Walter believed in the power of people, and in everything from banquet committees to policy boards, more was always better. CCA was founded on the unstoppable power of inclusion. If you can gather enough people, you are insuring that there will be enough power, political influence and money to make the impossible happen.
In the early days of GCCA, many doubted that this growing group of concerned anglers would ever amount to anything. Ask a Texas gillnetter how that turned out for them. Walter saw the power of inclusion and made it an indelible part of CCA’s culture. The thousands of local chapter, state and national board members will always stand as the personification of Walter’s faith in the power of an organized group of like-minded anglers.
“If it has to be done today…don’t do it.”
True visionaries are rarely troubled by the temporal trappings of deadlines. This was very true of Walter, and he never hesitated to turn down a deal or opportunity if it was going to require haste in the decision process or too little due diligence. Through the years, I was amazed how many times there was an issue, policy or opportunity that had to be decided upon immediately, and if Walter was in the decision train (as he most often was), it was going to stop right there if he so much as sniffed a need for truncated process.
It was this uncanny ability to always see the hook in the chum line that kept CCA out of so many traps and insured that we were and are driven by vision and not circumstance. Walter literally bred that into CCA’s policy process and to this day, it is entertaining to watch other groups in our policy and advocacy space marvel as we methodically trudge through the sub-committees, committees, work groups and Board that have guided our list of accomplishments.
“Don’t be fooled into believing there is a gray area.”
I cannot think of a better term to describe Walter than principle-driven, and Walter’s principles left little room for any gray area. He clearly understood that on any given issue there is a gray area, but
he also knew that you did not have to reside in it, or for that matter, even be bothered by it. He was never a man for nuance or spin.
I remember that during my first years as CCA’s Communication Director, I was advised to not use the term PR in his presence. It implied spin and hedging. Walter always demanded that decisions be made based on principle and process, and if that was the case, there was no reason to hide in gray area or carefully crafted rhetoric. Walter was so comfortable in his own skin that it was an anathema to him that anyone would want to hide their decisions. Although the fisheries management arena is clouded with thousands of shades of gray, Walter always saw right through them and quickly determined if they were truly black or white. That ability set CCA on its course early and still serves as a guiding compass in even the grayest of storms.
Walter will be missed on so many levels, but he will always be part of what makes CCA so great. He built the very spine that keeps our shared organization strong and ensures that conservation will always have a big dance committee.