Larry Bozka died of cancer on January 5, at 4:30.
I know the time, because I’d checked my phone at that exact moment, waiting for an electrician who was keeping me from going to my deer stand.
Outdoor enthusiasts, hunters, and fishermen in Texas knew about Boz, because he was an outstanding photojournalist with credits in countless outdoor publications, Past President of the Texas Outdoor Writers Association, former editor of Texas Fish and Game Magazine, and the author of Larry Bozka’s Saltwater Strategies, before launching into a long list of successful photographic and video endeavors too numerous to list here.
Boz gave me a chance, way back in 1992. I’d reached out to him via snail mail to see if he was interested in allowing me to write for a pulp outdoor newsletter I can’t name today. It was a statewide publication and I thought it would give me the opportunity to get my name out there, since I was working hard to expand my self-syndicated newspaper column.
He called long distance from Houston a few days after getting my packet, and hired me on the spot to write for him. We talked for an hour on the phone that day, on his dime, and from the moment I heard his voice, we were friends.
Taking a pretty much unknown writer under his wing, he gave me the opportunity to expand my imagination. I wrote humor for his paper, and we spent hours in the field, planning our next adventure, story ideas, and where we wanted to be twenty years from then.
From there Boz moved over to become editor of Texas Fish and Game, and brought me along, giving me the opportunity to write whatever I want. He was a gentle editor, who taught me much.
Then we lost our minds and took figurative shots at everything we could think of in an insane satirical publication called the National Fish Rapper. He was encouraging to a budding author, always there when I had a question or thought. He was a mentor, editor, friend, and never knew what he did for me.
Hang in here with me as this meandering trail brings me to my days as a middle school photography teacher. This was the late 1970s and early 80s, a time full of great rock and roll, parachute pants on the boys, Calvin Klein jeans and long bangs on the girls, and a troubled kid named Mark B.
Back then I had a reputation as a hard teacher who was a disciplinarian, and one who taught a fun class at the same time. Because of that, a number of floundering students appeared in my room who needed whatever it was that I could offer.
Mark was one of them. He’d been kicked out of most of his classes at one time or another and was no stranger to expulsion. Tougher than boot leather, he was always in trouble and tended to fight other guys at the drop of a hat. With a squad of toadies following behind, he cut quite a swath through the school.
I didn’t put up with much back then, and he and I butted heads almost on a daily basis. Once night he broke into the school, kicked through walls to access the principal’s office. I won’t go into details about what he left in the principal’s desk drawer, but suffice it to say that everything in there had to be thrown away.
Finding success and satisfaction in breaking through sheetrock that night, he turned his attention to my classroom. The hole in my wall reminded me of the Road Runner or Coyote punching through billboards. He tore the room apart to teach me a lesson.
For his enthusiasm, he wound up being expelled for the remainder of the year, and I never heard another word about Mark.
Four or five years ago the Bride and I went to Billy Bob’s dance hall in Ft. Worth to see Mark Chesnutt. I met the country music star through Boz (wait for the connection…) and we became friends. Mark loves to fish, and so do I, so the three of us had a great time in Rockport, Texas, sharing the outdoors and creating stories that should never be told.
At Billy Bob’s that night I sent word backstage to Mark, telling him I was there and would like to come back and visit with him before the show. I got a note ten minutes later to come through a specific stage door.
Note in hand, the Bride and I went backstage and were stopped in a dark hallway by a big deputy sheriff who looked at the note, then down at me.
“You aren’t going back there right now.”
I looked up at the bear-sized lawman. “This note came from Mark himself. Here’s his handwriting.”
“Nope. You’re not going in there.”
Face flushing with anger, I looked at the Bride for support. For once she didn’t have any answer except for a raised eyebrow, so I turned to the big guy. “I’m not sure what I’ve done to offend you, but we’d just like to go back and visit with my friend.”
“Mr. Wortham, you and I have something to talk about first.”
I paused. “Do I know you?”
“You did, Mr. Wortham. I’m Mark B.”
My eyes widened in shock.
The big guy grinned. “Thought I was in the pen, didn’t you?”
“Frankly, yes. But you’re a deputy sheriff. How….?”
“Because of you, and the principal. I was out of control when I was a kid, but you two talked to me, and listened, and y’all stayed on me. You encouraged me in class, and it stuck, though I didn’t know it at the time.
“All that kicked in a few years later when I got in trouble again. It wasn’t pretty, but the judge sealed my records and I straightened up. If it wasn’t for y’all, I’d be in prison, but you helped turn me around.”
Then he hugged me, and I disappeared as that big guy wrapped his arms around me. I had only one thing to say.
“Don’t hurt me.”
He pushed me back and grinned. “I just want to thank you for taking the time to work with me.”
We talked for a few more minutes before he allowed us backstage, which is another story that evolved that night.
Part of my point is that Boz introduced me to Chesnutt, who in a roundabout way allowed me to talk with Mark B., a success story I would have never know about.
The second point is that we don’t know what impact we have on others. One student in my photography class eventually became the Chief Photographer for Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, who has a connection with…Larry Bozka.
Boz’s passing leads me to this observation. We don’t know what future impact a kind word, or a kind act can have on someone. Giving a writer positive feedback might be all they need to continue trying to make it. Honest critiques can make all the difference. Maybe nothing but a sincere, encouraging word is all we need to offer.
I’ll always hear his encouraging voice that was supportive and full of life and humor. Helping and encouraging freshmen writers was always part of his mission, and it should be ours as published authors, too.
It was because of Larry Bozka, and others who believed in me, that I’ve achieved success as a newspaper columnist, magazine writer and monthly columnist still for Texas Fish and Game, and an author 15 novels and counting.
He was one of a kind, and readers everywhere will miss that twinkle in his eyes and his distinctive writing voice. We
I lift my glass to Boz. Another fine writer and friend gone.