By BRIAN BROOM, The Clarion Ledger
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — He rose to fame in the turkey hunting world in the 1970s, and at 94, he returned to his hunting roots in Mississippi to harvest another bird.
“When he saw this bird, the hunter’s instinct kicked in,” said Med Palmer of Hazlehurst. “He’s been hunting them for 83 years. He knew what to do. I guess you keep this instinct no matter how old you are.
The hunter is retired US Army Colonel Tom Kelly who served in World War II and the Korean War. For those who aren’t turkey hunters, his name is probably unfamiliar. For many who are, he is considered a legend due to a book he wrote and published in 1973 – “Tenth Legion”.
“Turkey Hunt was just starting to catch on when it came out,” Palmer said. “It was probably the first book written about turkey hunting. The timing of this book was perfect. People were just learning about it. The way he wrote it drew the hunting crowd to this book. Everyone could relate to these stories he told at some point during their hunting career.
Born in 1927, Kelly grew up in southern Alabama, but his hunting career began in Mississippi.
“I had an uncle who hunted turkeys,” said Kelly, of Bethesda, Maryland. “He was hunting along the Pascagoula River. He was a great hunter and fisherman. Everything related to hunting and fishing, I was invited to be part of it.
Kelly said he started hunting when he was 8 or 9 years old and harvested his first turkey when he was 11. The passion he developed for turkeys defined him later in life.
Kelly wrote his humorous turkey hunting storybook at the request of his wife. He titled it “Tenth Legion” after the elite military force of ancient Rome that he equated with turkey hunters. His self-published book and its initial 1,100 copies met with unexpected success.
“I had no idea I would sell so many books,” Kelly said. “I thought I would sell as many as I could and then have a lifetime supply of Christmas presents.”
On March 18, Kelly was in Mississippi hunting with Palmer, Stevie McLemore of Hazlehurst, Kelly’s friend Joe Wood of Biloxi and others. As Palmer has done for hundreds of disabled hunters, first-time hunters and military veterans, he called in a pair of gobblers for Kelly.
Despite Kelly’s advanced age, he was able to see one of the birds and the fire.
“The turkey folded,” Palmer said. “It was amazing. When he saw them, you could tell all those years of turkey hunting had begun. Of course, we were all excited.
Much like Kelly’s turkey hunting career, the stories he tells are long-lasting. He’s written a number of books since 1973, but “Tenth Legion” has been an ongoing success story.
“He is nationally recognized as the poet laureate of turkey hunting stories and literature,” Wood said. “’Tenth Legion’ is the book most turkey hunters read. It has been reissued probably 10 times over the past 20 years. It’s humorous. If turkey hunters could only have one book, this is the one they want to have.
Although excited about his recent hunt in Mississippi, Kelly didn’t seem surprised by his success. After all, he has 83 seasons of experience. Asked about continued interest in a book he wrote nearly 50 years ago, his response was quite different.
“It just keeps coming back and coming back and coming back,” Kelly said. “I’m absolutely stunned that people are still buying it.”
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