When Phil Taunton follows a bird dog through a field or casts a line into his favorite fishing lake, it always brings back fond memories of time spent with his dad.
Thanks to his father, Taunton grew up with a deep appreciation for the outdoors. Whether it was walking in his dad’s footsteps hunting quail where Milford Reservoir now sits, or setting cane poles for catfish on creeks, father and son were immersed in nature.
Maybe that’s why Taunton felt a void when his father passed away in 1995.
“My dad was an inspiration,” said Taunton, 65, who lives in Emporia. “And not just to me. There wasn’t a kid in the neighborhood who didn’t look at my dad as their dad.
“He loved the outdoors, and he loved to get kids involved in things he had a passion for.”
Taunton is continuing that family tradition. A tireless worker for getting children involved in the outdoors, he recently was recognized for his achievements when he was named the national Volunteer of the Year by the National Wildlife Federation.
“I have a picture down at my lake home that shows a ghostly figure of an adult hunter with his bird dog and then a boy with a younger dog on a leash, going through a field,” Taunton said. “To me, that picture has always been special.
“It reminds me that we have to pass down our love of the outdoors to the younger generation.”
Taunton has been busy doing that for years. After his father died, he wanted to do something that would honor him. So he became a hunter-education instructor, a volunteer position he still holds. From there, his efforts just mushroomed.
Now retired from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, Taunton has a hectic schedule that would leave others exhausted. When it comes to recruiting kids into the outdoors, there aren’t enough hours in the day for Taunton.
He started by helping organize Take a Kid Hunting programs and National Hunting and Fishing Day celebrations in the Emporia area. From there, he became involved with environmental education programs such as Green Schools, ECO-Meets, No Child Left Inside and local Environthon competitions
He played a major part in developing an Emporia State booklet entitled “Last Child on the Prairie: A Directory for Parents and Teachers for Returning Children to the Outdoors.” And he shows youngsters the excitement of working with bird dogs when he puts on The World of Sporting Dogs presentations.
When Beau Arndt, a local youth who was an avid outdoorsman, was killed in a hunting accident, Taunton worked with the Arndt family to create 4 Beau Arndt, Love of the Outdoors Appreciation Days and establish a scholarship at Emporia State in Arndt‘s name.
He also has been active in programs for everything from the Kansas Wildlife Federation to 4-H, and he enthusiastically touts young outdoors enthusiasts as “our future.” He gets the word out on a weekly radio show, heard from 8:15 to 8:55 a.m. Fridays on KVOE, 1400-AM.
“It’s the dedication and commitment of people like Phil Taunton that helps ensure a wildlife heritage for our children,” said Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.
Troy Schroeder, president of the federation, added, “Phil is a true inspiration. His love of the outdoors and youth is abundant and never-ending. His energy to assist outdoor groups knows no limits.”
But to Taunton, the only reward he needs for his hours of volunteer work is seeing children becoming involved in the outdoors.
“At one of our bird-dog demonstrations, a dad and his son were there when one of my dogs went on a solid point right in front of them,” Taunton said. “I could tell the father hadn’t hunted very much, but he was just amazed.
“He turned to his son and said, ‘Everyone should see this at least once in their lifetime.’ And the boy said, ‘Dad, we have to do this.’ ”