Featured Hall-of-Famer | Virgil Ward
Inducted Into The Freshwater Fishing Hall Of Fame As A Legendary Angler In 1992.
A Legend – Gone, But Not Forgotten
By Dan Galusha
On September 13, 2004, the fishing world lost one of its biggest legends – Virgil Ward. He started from humble beginnings, and made it to “a comfortable life”, as Virgil said it, through his love and dedication in teaching people to enjoy the sport of fishing.
Virgil’s parents, William Sevier Ward and Pearl Lorence Wright, were married on June 25, 1902 in Texarkana, Arkansas. After moving to Easton, Missouri, Virgil was born on May 25, 1911.
His father had a good business of a cider and saw mill. This was traded for a 120-acre farm, near Amsterdam, Missouri, for which was purchased cattle at $300 per head. The Depression hit, and the price of cattle dropped to $30 per head.
As with many families during that time, they were extremely poor. Many times Virgil and his brothers and sisters didn’t attend school because they had to work. When Virgil did go to school he would walk three miles.
While attending Amsterdam High School he was the county champion for three years in track. He was never beaten in any running or standing broad jump competition. He also competed in the discus throw and pole vault, and was the leader of the basketball team.
When asked about his favorite subjects, Virgil jokingly said, “geometry and girls.” Maybe that is why he was called the “sheik” in his high school yearbook.
Although Cleda Irene Thornbrough, who was called the “prettiest girl in school”, attended the same high school, Virgil did not meet her there. Their meeting took place during one of Amsterdam’s band concerts, of which there were one or two each week.
The meeting eventually resulted in Virgil and Cleada’s wedding on December 3, 1933. Virgil was 22 and Cleda was 21. They were so poor that they could not afford a wedding photo or washer.
Their first child, Bill, was born in 1934. They also have three daughters, Barbara, Karen and Sandy, and nine grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
Virgil started a plumbing shop in Amsterdam, and also sold appliances. The family lived in the back of the shop, which eventually became the home of the Bass Buster Lure Company. It remained as one of the Bass Buster plants until its closing a few years ago.
In 1955 Virgil and Bill started the Bass Buster Lure Company, and patented the fiber weedguard. This weedguard revolutionized the weedless jig, and is still used today by jig manufacturers. He also created the famous maribou jig and Beetle Spin. Later the company was sold to the Johnson Wax Company, who owned Johnson Fishing.
Virgil’s athletic and competitive spirit carried throughout his life. He played basketball until the age of 38 and baseball until he was 48. In competitive fishing he won the 1958 Regional Bass Competition, 1962 World Series of Sport Fishing, 1964 National Championship of Fresh Water Fishing, and 1964 Outdoor Writers and Broadcasters National Fishing Tournament.
According to Bill Ward, this competitiveness and faith in God is what carried his father through many tough times, including his fight with bladder cancer, which is what finally took him.
Some of his first experiences with the electronic outdoor media were with Lloyd Presley, who had a local outdoor radio show in Springfield, Missouri. Later Lloyd started Presleys’ Country Jubilee, which was Branson’s first country theater. Virgil appeared on Lloyd’s show reporting his fishing success in that Ozark area.
It wasn’t long before Virgil was going strong in the outdoor media, with a column in 455 newspapers, and a radio show on 200 stations.
From 1963 to 64 Virgil hosted his first TV series with co-host Bud Iman, for the Missouri Conservation Commission. The shows aired on KY3 in Springfield, Missouri. At this same time he also taught a fishing class at Southwest Missouri State University.
This was the springboard for his most famous accomplishment – the nationally syndicated Championship Fishing TV Show. He hosted the show for 25 years, 21 of which took the number one rating for fishing shows, according to Nielsen and ARB rating services. One of those years the show placed number one over 400 syndicated shows – one of Virgil’s proudest achievements.
The show had many top name sponsors, three of which were Bass Pro Shops, Ranger Boats and Johnson Fishing. Owners of these companies, Johnny Morris, Forrest Wood and Sam Johnson, were not just business acquaintances, but also close friends to Virgil.
This same friendship carried over to his guests, whether they were professional anglers like Roland Martin and Charlie Campbell, country entertainers like Roy Clark, Dotty West, Junior Samples, Box Car Willie and Mel Tillis, sports celebrities like Pete Rose, Stan Muscial, Darrel Porter, George Brett and Wayne Gretzky, entertainers like Nanette Fabray, Hugh Obrien, Fred McMurray, Glenn Ford and Martin Milner, guides like Jim Rogers, or outdoor media people, such as myself.
Virgil felt his best show was a trout episode shot in Alaska out of Golden Horn Lodge. He said the fishing was fantastic, with at least a five-pound fish on every cast.
After Virgil’s retirement from the show it was hosted for about three years by his grandson Greg Ward. Greg had been groomed to take over the show, and knew the hard work his grandfather had put into it. However, Greg did not like the work and fame that went with it, and said he would rather just hunt and fish, and not have anyone know he is.
Many of the people in the outdoor media, including myself, have had their careers influenced either directly or indirectly by Virgil. One such person is Al Lindner, who decided to start his TV show after being a guest on Virgil’s show.
Throughout his life there were numerous honors bestowed. He was a member of the Ozark Fisherman’s Hall of Fame, the International Fishing Hall of Fame and the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame. He was the recipient of fishing’s highest recognition, the Dolphin Award, and was included in the Living Legends of American Sportfishing.
In 1975 Missouri’s Governor Christopher S. Bond proclaimed October 19 as Virgil Ward Day. Governor Bond said, “Virgil Ward, through his many efforts, has made an invaluable contribution to Missouri Tourism, and has made millions of Americans aware of the world of fishing.”
In 1997 Brad Mosier, photojournalist, and I had an idea to produce a documentary about Virgil’s life. By 1999 The World of Virgil Ward was first aired on WQPT PBS-TV, in Moline, Illinois, and later on other PBS affiliates. It is still available to PBS stations across the nation.
While taping the documentary we asked everyone why he or she thought Virgil was so popular. Perhaps it can best be answered by paraphrasing the statement we received from his grandson, Eric Curnutte – by saying, “He is more than a fishing show host, he is a friend that we looked forward to seeing each week.”
I feel a big part of his success was the fact that the person you saw on television was the person you would meet, if that opportunity had ever been made possible. He was a good, religious family man, and projected that to his audience.
One of the guests on my radio show once said, “If all people in our industry were as nice as Virgil we would have very few problems in the fishing community.” I would change that a bit by saying, “If all people in the world were as nice as Virgil we would have very few problems anywhere.”
Virgil championed the causes of catch-and-release, and cleaning up litter, such as old fishing line, way before it was a popular subject. He has taught us a lot, not just in fishing, but also in how to be a good person.
Virgil was 93 years old, and fished up until a couple of weeks before his passing. His last trip was on his private lake with his son Bill.
In some way try to keep a little bit of Virgil in your heart, and allow The World of Virgil Ward to live on forever.
He will be missed.
God has a great fishing partner.
The World of Virgil Ward
For information, listening to his memorable theme song, and photos regarding Virgil and the documentary, visit the Dan’s Fish ‘N’ Tales® website at www.dansfishntales.com, and click on the link to The World of Virgil Ward page.