When longtime Times-Republican outdoor columnist John Garwood retired from his esteemed post in 1991, Garry Brandenburg expressed interest in taking it over, but he wasn’t pushy about it. Former Publisher Mike Schlesinger eventually gave him the job, and Brandenburg, who was then the executive director of the Marshall County Conservation Board and retired in 2004, has been at it ever since.
“I know a lot about what I speak, and I can back it all up with facts and files,” Brandenburg said.
Upon reaching 30 years writing the weekly column now known as Outdoors Today- October 3, 1991 was when it all started- Brandenburg reflected on the long and winding road that led him from a Bremer County dairy farm to southeast Asia during the Vietnam War to Iowa State University and finally Marshall County, where he has resided for almost 50 years.
Brandenburg begins with the story of how, at age 10, sometime around 1955, he picked a heifer calf out of a pen and decided on the spot that it would be his project to show at the Bremer County Fair.
“I wanted the one that was cuter, whatever that meant,” he said.
Surely enough, that same calf won back-to-back grand champion awards in 1962 and 1963. Not long after, Brandenburg received a draft card in the mail, and he immediately resented the idea that someone else was determining his path in life for him.
“In 1963, the Army was going to get you, or the Marines were going to get you. I said, ‘I like airplanes better, so the Air Force is going to get me.’ So I enlisted in the Air Force,” he said.
Ten days after showing his dairy cow one last time, he was driving to Waterloo on a one-way trip to the recruiter’s office. Brandenburg received training in munitions maintenance and spent a year in Oxnard, Calif., before heading off to Korat, Thailand, where the U.S. had fighter planes stationed and ready to be loaded with ammunition. He circulated back to South Dakota, then Thailand again, then Guam- where he helped to unload 3,000 bomb fins a day, seven days a week- and finally received his discharge papers in 1967 as the war effort was still escalating.
As Brandenburg puts it, his sergeant asked him to re-enlist, but he respectfully declined, citing his plans to attend Iowa State University. His first post-military job was working for the Kossuth County Soil Conservation District in Algona, and he received his ISU acceptance letter, starting classes as a 23-year-old freshman on the GI Bill in 1968.
“I went from a young kid wet behind the ears at age 18 to a person who was much wiser and much more mature mentally at age 21. And I knew what I wanted to do, so I finished growing up,” Brandenburg said.
After graduating and exploring career options, Brandenburg moved to Albion with his wife and started with Marshall County on June 1, 1972. Throughout his tenure, he found himself writing everything from news releases to reports to grant applications, and he got his feet wet with more journalistic and creative styles through submitting occasional guest editorials and news stories to the Times-Republican.
The first iteration of the column was known as “Outdoor Reflections,” a departure from Garwood’s “Sighting Upstream,” but a few years in, Brandenburg settled on “Outdoors Today.” To this day, readers stop him in public to share their positive reactions.
“I’ll see them at a grocery store or some place, and they’ll (say) ‘Oh, you write your story in the T-R about birds, butterflies, geology, deer, landscapes and the Iowa River? It feels like I’m going to biology class,’” he said. “The next comment will be ‘Don’t stop.’ Okay, how am I supposed to retire then? (They say) ‘I don’t care, just don’t stop.’”
If Brandenburg had told his high school English teacher that he’d live to be a popular newspaper columnist someday, he jokes, he might have been laughed out of the room. He’s always maintained a folksy, conversational writing style and admits to “grammatical and sentence structure errors,” but added that no one seems to mind.
“I was not an Ernest Hemingway kind of philosopher,” he said, although he has been on two game hunting trips in Africa.
One of Brandenburg’s defining characteristics as a columnist has been his curiosity and ability to switch between subjects that may seem completely unrelated at first glance. He’s certainly an outdoorsman in the traditional sense, but that doesn’t mean he sticks strictly to hunting and fishing with Outdoors Today. He may cover historical weather and glacial patterns, animal migration and volcanic ash movements just as often as a kid shooting his first buck.
“It’s still fun, even though it’s work,” Brandenburg said.
Age is just a number, so don’t expect the 76-year-old Brandenburg to slow down anytime soon. He’ll probably write the column for as long as he can- and as long as he still hears from supportive readers at the grocery store.
Contact Robert Maharry at 641-753-6611 ext. 255