Today marks 51 years since the passing of Willet Randall. In 1970, I was playing in snow forts, riding sleds and pushing matchbox cars and my biggest worry was my mother forcing me to brush my teeth. Sometime later that spring or summer, I’m sure Uncle Joe mentioned something about Willet dying, as they were friends. Death to a young boy was something mysterious, unimaginable and incomprehensible. I had never, at that point, experienced death of a friend or family member. Just a few short years later, I had been bitten by the beagle puppy bug and was eager to learn all I could. I really didn’t understand the whole “rabbit dog” concept but there was something eating at me that I had to have a beagle. The soft eyes, long ears and pleasant voice all were calling me.
In those early learning sessions, Uncle Joe would talk about Willet and his hounds. How the remote Adirondack wilderness was some exotic destination and Willet Randall was THE MAN of that mountain. Uncle Joe would tell of Willet turning hounds loose in this paradise and he would evaluate, train and breed this strain we all know as THE PATCH HOUNDS.
I would imagine anyone reading this has read Wilderness Patchwork or has heard the stories of Willet’s humble beginnings as the Preacher’s son. Myself, I did not read Wilderness Patchwork until much later in life, after I had seen and had run some Patch hounds that were direct pups of Willet’s personal stock. I heard first hand, stories of the hard life and rugged winters that this Old man had to deal with on a daily basis.
For many of us, in our comfortable life, this existence is hard to fathom. Modern roads and winter road maintenance, four wheel drive vehicles and going to the thermostat on the wall to crank the heat up were unknown to these old timers. Dog food in packaged bags, vaccinations delivered to our door and 24 hour veterinary service were not in their wildest dreams. Add to that the rigors of an Adirondack winter and the general isolation that comes with being a bachelor in Beaver Meadows, and one gains a new respect for those the likes of Willet Randall.
I remember my first trip to the Adirondacks some 15-20 years after Willet passed and wondered how these people survived up there. Now I am no city slicker, much more of a country boy, but this massive forest was amazing to me. I had spent countless hours in the woods and still am more comfortable in a forest than in a concrete jungle but I do like civilization. I wondered, “How could these people live like this?” Once I got past Warrensburg, and people found out I was into the hounds, I would hear stories of Willet Randall; Stories of his cigar, stories of church, of cantankerous curmudgeons, the Ark Zoo and animals and of course, the hounds, stories of the hermit bachelor who preferred the wilds to civilization. At Mike’s burial service, several people came up to me with stories of Willet and actually the minister of Mike’s service was the great nephew of Willet. But it was Mike that gave me the most in depth look at the man, Willet.
Mike and my Uncle Joe made the trip from southern New York to Willets kennel in 1964. From that day forward, Mike and Willet became best of friends with Mike eventually giving up the life he knew and diving head first into life in the Adirondacks. For some time, Mike lived with Willet, taking care of and running the hounds and Willet eventually found Mike the 40 acres he would call his and his family’s home. Mike’s place was just a short trek from Beaver Meadows. Mike would get this wry smile when he relayed a story of Willet. There was closeness, a bond, a friendship that came through on Mike’s face when he thought and spoke of Willet. Mike told me of Willet being a great story teller and some of the fiction that he came up with. Also some of his peculiar ways, one in particular was when they were going through the mail. Willet would look at the return address and on occasion the letter was immediately put into the fire. (Yes, just as today, the Patch hounds AND the Patch Kennel have their haters). Willet was very good at reading people and their intentions. Some had their own, shady interests and some wanted to ride the coattails of the kennel. Willet didn’t concern himself with what was in those letters and just moved on and did his thing. Willet told Mike that some people had fooled him and got a hound from him but they would never get another.
Willet referred to Mike as “Wild Mike” and valued him as his hound trainer. Age was catching up with Willet and Mike, as a young man, was able to get in there and see exactly what the hounds were doing. Evenings were spent discussing houndwork and pondering the future crosses. Willet was still at the helm until almost the very end.
The last couple of years of Willet’s life were spent in and out of the hospital with Mike taking care of the hounds and making trips to visit Willet and making sure Willet was comfortable after being discharged. Mike had begun work on his kennel when Willet fell and broke his hip but Willet never got to see Mike’s completed kennel.
As Willet knew his time was coming, he and Mike spoke about the future of the kennel and the hounds. Willet’s desire was to not let his life’s work with the hounds just disappear. He gave Mike specific guidelines and standards that must always be kept. The standards of the longest continuing AKC Registered Kennel must go on. Mike and I also had these conversations about the continuity of the kennel from me, as this was Willet’s wish.
Would I have liked to have met him? Absolutely! Would we have got along? Who knows? My appreciation for those that came before us is unwavering. I have great respect and admiration for those that paved the way for us. Willet had many advantages over all of us as it was a different time. We also have many advantages of modern life that were unimaginable to our forefathers. The hounds were Willet’s livelihood, although supplemented by his writings, and I know some decisions were made that he would not have made if money wasn’t a factor.
I could go on and on about Willet Randall’s fascinating life, from Whooping Cranes to Foxlair. His death 51 years ago marked the end of an era. His legacy is as large as ever. I doubt there is a beagler alive today that doesn’t know of Willet Randall. My goal is to keep his hound legacy alive, to build upon what he had done, and keep the greatest family of hunting beagles alive and thriving.
*- I have several obituaries that appeared in various publications as well as the text of the Eulogy that was read at his burial service. Every trip I make to the Adirondacks include a visit to the Baptist Cemetary as well as the grave on Cleveland Rd.