The 2015 NTA Convention

        Well, it was Gatlinburg in mid-July
        And I just hit town and my throat was dry,
        I thought I’d stop and have myself a brew.
        At an old saloon on a street of mud,
        There at a table, dealing stud,
        Sat the dirty, mangy dog that named me “Sue.”

                                                        –Johnny Cash

Well, the streets weren’t muddy, but the National Taxidermists Association hit the town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee smack-dab in the middle of July for their annual convention. Each NTA show has its own particular feel and personality, and this one was no exception. The Gatlinburg convention, which was the 44th time the NTA has gathered for a show, was jam-packed with the usual fun, camaraderie and excitement, yet it was unlike any other NTA convention before. It will go down as a unique, memorable event in the annals of NTA history.

Gatlinburg, located in the heart of the Smoky Mountain National Park, is not that easy to get to. The final 30 miles or so of highway into the town takes well over an hour of driving on the two-lane switchback road which winds through magnificent mountains. The views revealed around every turn are so beautiful that you are compelled to stop your car occasionally in one of the many scenic pull-offs and take it all in.

The town itself is a quaint mixture of hillbilly meets Octoberfest, with European Alpine architecture influences. In 2012, Forbes Magazine named Gatlinburg as one of the nation’s “Top Ten Prettiest Towns”. Families could wander around the town for days, visiting attractions, including shops, museums, amusement parks, a world-class aquarium, or just hiking the National Park nature trails easily accessable within walking distance from the hotel. No one who atteneded the show ever got the chance to be bored, even the non-taxidermist family members.

The host facility, the River Terrace Resort and Convention Center, was built on the side of a mountain overlooking a stream, and therefore unlike any previous NTA convention center. This made it the most picturesque NTA hotel to date, even if it did create some minor inconveniences. Parking was crowded and backing up trailers was tricky around the multi level parking lots. Even though the overall convention area was smaller than usual, everything worked out great in the end.

The facility was located directly on the Gatlinburg’s River Walk, which required crossing a covered bridge to access. The convention center’s ground floor housed the competition area and the four seminar classrooms. Directly above on the second level was the registration and trade show area, which was open above to a five-story atrium. My hotel room overlooked the supply and registration area, so it was easy to get around and see what was happening at any given time. All hotel rooms had private balconies with spectacular views of the town, the mountains, and the river running in front of the hotel.

The competition area quickly filled up with a wide variety of outstanding entries. Board members Jim Tucker, Heath Cline and Tim Thacker managed the competition and did an outstanding job with the help of Jim’s wife, Debbie. For the past few years, the NTA has been in a rebuilding mode, so there has been little continuity from year to year on the competition software. It seems like every year the new competition committee has to reinvent the computer scoring procedures, which can create many unforseen problems. To their credit, the 2015 competition committee stepped up to the challenge and worked through any problems that arose. Chris Feldt, Janna Medved and Cindy Creager manned the registration tables. The end result was a smooth operation which worked as if everything had been planned out perfectly.

So many old friends whom I had not seen in many years showed up for the convention, that it felt like attending a family reunion. It was great to see Richard Christoforo who drove down with fish judge and seminar instructor Rick Krane from New England. It was nice to catch up with longtime NTA members Lanny Ballard, Archie Phillips, Lou Gagliano and George Roof. Pearl Henderson made her appearance for the 44th consecutive year. She has not missed any NTA convention so far.

My wife and I also made many new friends, including meeting Russell Knight’s wife Jerry and daughter Tina for the first time, working alongside Jim and Deb Tucker and meeting an extraordinary artist, Doug Eck, who created the Theodore Roosevelt Lion sculpture (more on that later).

Impromptu band members Chris Feldt, Big Jim Tucker and Ken Edwards.

The convention center staff was small, but they worked hard to make sure that all the attendees had a great experience. On Thursday night, the NTA hosted a Meet & Greet party with hors d’oeuvres, a cash bar and live music. I brought my music equipment and performed along with Board members Chris Feldt, who sang and played piano, and Jim Tucker, who rocked out on electric guitar. Guest vocalists Kurt Ainsworth and Kathy Blomquist also joined in the festivities.

On Friday night, the NTA hosted a delicious all-you-can-eat fish fry dinner at their general membership meeting and auction, free to attendees. Jack Trudeau was the auctioneer and his humor and delivery kept the three-hour auction moving along at an entertaining pace.

Taxidermists who came to learn new techniques were not disappointed. There were seminars by many of America’s top artists. Jean Roll performed a complete carcass casting demonstration, Joey Murphy demonstrated pressure washer fleshing, new Master of Masters winner Brian Henricks mounted a fox, Tim Jordan mounted a turkey, Olaus Lyons and Phil Helms lead a hands-on eye setting class, Matt Zimmerman mounted a rattlesnake, and there were multiple seminars on whitetails, boars, business, reference and tanning. There was even a photography seminar by some guy I’d never heard of.

As with most NTA events, this one was not without controversy behind the scenes. Old and new feuds between board members and factions simmered under the surface. But to the attendees, everything looked fine in the public areas and all board members handled themselves in a professional and courteous manner. Registrants without internet access, or ones not reading the Forum, would not have had a clue that there was any trouble at all.

Masters of Ceremonies Russell Knight and Fred Vanderburgh, Rick Krane and honoree Richard Christoforo.

Saturday night’s banquet and awards program was hosted by Fred Vanderburgh of New York and Russell Knight of Alaska. They did an outstanding job of making the program entertaining and fast paced. There were several especially moving moments during the program. Fred lead the crowd in a moment of silence for the recent loss of Jack Jonas and Audie Crabtree. Richard Christoforo was given an honorary lifetime membership and his friend Rick Krane delivered a moving tribute to his mentor, in which Rick read a letter that Richard had written to him when he was a teenager and wanting advise on embarking in his taxidermy career.

The outgoing president, Mitch Webb, his mother and NTA office manager Connie Webb, and Board Member Jim Ellis were each honored and thanked as they retired from their duties after many years of service to the organization.

The President’s Award went to Mel Kincheloe and his wife for their efforts with TERF (Taxidermists Emergency Relief Fund). The Director of the Year Award went to Joseph Anderson, whose work behind the scenes was important to the success of the convention. The Pearl Henderson Lifetime Achievement Award was presented by Pearl heself to Brian Noody of New York for his lifelong contributions to the industry. The Pioneer Award went to Ken Edwards of Georgia for his long and dedicated service to the organization.

As the major awards were announced, the excitement kept building. Due to the generosity of the supplier donations, a record amount of cash was awarded to the winners. As the final prizes of the night approached, the excitement was palpable. After the National Champion and North American Champion awards and cash prizes were announced, Kathy Blomquist got up to give away Breakthrough’s donation of a $1,000.00 cash prize for the Judges’ Choice Best of Show. When the winner was announced as Rebecca Wilcher of Arkansas with a beautiful tahr mount, the crowd went wild.

Before the final award of the night, the Taxidermist of the Year award, board member Tim Thacker of Illinois took the podium to read John Janelli’s compelling story of the Roosevelt Lion, an unfinished sculpture by Carl E. Akeley commemorating his late friend and safari companion, Theodore Roosevelt. A talented sculptor and taxidermist, Doug Eck of North Dakota, took on the daunting task of creating a new lion sculpture inspired by Akeley and Roosevelt. He succeeded in the task by creating an outstanding, beautiful sculpture that captured both the essence of Roosevelt with the spirit and talent of Akeley. Tim Thacker molded the sculpture and created the cold-cast bronze which would be awarded by the NTA to the 2015 Taxidermist of The Year.

By now the audience was sitting on the edge of its seat as this new award was about to be given to its first recipient. A hush fell over the room as the final winner of the night was announced. When Rebecca Wilcher’s name was revealed as the new Taxidermist of the Year, the crowd lept to its feet with a standing ovation. With tears in her eyes, Rebecca thanked her friends, colleagues and mentors, for their help in her attaining this achievement.

For a complete list of major award winners from the banquet, as well as photos of the winning entries, go here:

To read the history behind the creation of the Roosevelt Lion sculpture and John Janelli’s compelling story of Carl E. Akeley’s lost masterpiece, go here:

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