About the Big Al Charity Hunt
Who was Big Al?
Big Al was the head of our family. The patriarch. Nothing made him happier than having his family around him—and what a family he had! This dedicated husband and provider was father to 6, grandfather to 12 and great grandfather to 14. While he didn’t like to talk about it, he was also a veteran of World War II. He was a respected long-time employee of the Wisconsin Electric Company, and a guy who knew how to get things done. He even built the family home out of Lannon stone with his own two hands. Big Al lived a good, honest life dedicated to what matters: family, friends, country and a deep appreciation for the outdoors.
When good things come out of bad...
In 1997, Al was diagnosed with cancer, and the prognosis was not good. While this was a painful, uncertain time, the hard work and dedication of many excellent caregivers made all the difference: Al beat the odds and lived. As a family, we were so thankful to have more time with him which made me want to do something for the people who worked so hard to help. The only thing I could think of was to donate to a charity that supported their work…and so The Big Al Charity Pheasant Hunt was born.
That First Hunt
In 1997, on a crisp fall Saturday afternoon, eleven family and friends gathered for a few hours of field hunting…and to show their love and support for Al. We met at Blonhaven Hunt Club. At the time, it was owned by a dear friend, Jim Clark. When I first presented this idea to him, he was in: 100% and offered to open his facility at a very minimal cost. This was critical to the success of the event. Without his generosity, the charity wouldn’t have worked. That first day, we raised about $800 for the American Cancer Society. It was a fun, successful day of pheasant hunting, but more importantly, it was the beginning of a tradition that would in many ways change my life and the life of many others—some of whom I’ll never even meet.
From field hunt to tower hunt
The following year, we had planned another hunt. Word had gotten out about what a great day it was, and we had a number of people ask if they could join us. The Big Al was now off and running.
In these early years, we held a “field hunt.” Four hunters were paired to a dog and handler…and were given a field to hunt for the afternoon. As the numbers began to grow, however, this became hard to manage. Jim came to me and explained that the logistics of getting that many dogs, handlers and fields was becoming a nightmare. His suggestion was to change the event into a “tower hunt.”
For those that have never been to a tower hunt, it is a ton of fun. There’s a lot of shooting and excitement. Imagine 12 to 14 blinds surrounding an approximately 30-foot tower. Each blind holds two hunters which means that in just one round, 28 shooters can be accommodated. As birds are released from the tower, hunting begins. The pheasants fly out powerfully in full flight—in any and all directions. It is truly a challenge to get a bird. Dogs and their handlers are working alongside the hunters to harvest the birds as they fall to the ground. After every 10 or so birds are released, a horn is sounded, guns are unloaded, and each hunter rotates over one blind. Everyone has an equal opportunity to get in some great shooting. It is not unusual to shoot 2 to 3 boxes of shells in one round.
The right partner steps in
The tower hunt model allowed us to accommodate many more shooters in a much shorter time which then led to more participation in the event. As more people joined, the raffle portion of the event got bigger. Participants donated more items and bought more tickets, allowing us to raise a lot more money. By about year 10, it became apparent that we had two good problems. One, we began to raise so much money that we had a tax problem…and two, the distribution of the funds became difficult to manage.
What we learned, however, is that The Big Al seems to take care of itself. Whenever this event develops a problem, a solution seems to present itself—almost miraculously. And that is exactly what happened here. While attending an SCI-Wisconsin banquet, an old friend, Ron Kujawa, came up with the solution to our problems: approach the SCI Board of Directors to set up our charity event as “The Big Al Fund”. At the very same time, Make-a-Wish had stopped funding hunts for terminal ill children, so we saw this as a very special need we could meet. The transition was perfect and timely. Because my dad had been a WWII veteran and a strong advocate for youth in the outdoors, we decided to sponsor outdoor activities for sick kids and disabled veterans, trying to stay as local as possible. A solid partnership with shared ideals was formed that day.
Something bigger than us all
The generosity of the people who attend The Big Al is unbelievable. Many of the hunters save up over the course of a year to be able to donate in a meaningful way. So, where does the money go? Here are just some of the experiences we help to sponsor:
- Pheasant Hunting for wheelchair-bound vets
- Trap shooting for vets fighting cancer
- Muskie fishing for disabled vets (co-sponsored with Wounded Warriors)
- Donating toward Dan Small's Deer Hunt Wisconsin TV program. This year’s program will feature a female wheelchair mentor helping a youth hunter…along with a Fallen Outdoors Hunt where veterans talk about the importance of spending time outdoors with military brothers as a way to release debilitating stress and anxiety.
- Great Lakes charter fishing trips for kids with life-threatening diseases. We co-sponsor with the United Special Sportsman Alliance (USSA) to bring in these brave kids from all over the state. They are put up for the night in Port Washington, get up early Saturday morning, fish with guided Great Lake Charter boats (also donated), return to port around noon, and then have a big lunch. There are sometimes as many as 25 kids.
One year, I was fortunate to be able to go along on one of these charter fishing trips and see the joy on these kids’ faces. At the end of the day, when I was getting ready to leave, a woman came running up to my car and said, "Thank you so much for what you have done here today. You don't know what it means." I said, "It was certainly my honor." She said "No, you really don't understand what this means. Every dime we have goes to medical bills. We would never even dream of being able to do something like this for Michael [her little boy]. I have not seen him smile this much in a year. We cannot possibly thank you enough." She kissed me on the cheek and walked away, and I sat in my car and cried for about 15 minutes.
This is what the Big Al is all about.
25 years after that first hunt...
6:58 a.m. October 16, 2022
On that drizzly, gray morning, Wern Valley was bustling, preparing for 60 hunters—60 family and friends. Everybody was happy. Everybody was showing up to support a great cause. Everybody was busy: raffle prizes were being unloaded from the back of a pickup truck, coffee was brewing, the ticket table was getting set up…and I was more emotional about this event than I had ever been before. The goal for this 25th year was to hit $25,000. The mixture of nerves and love for my dad and all these people and this event was overwhelming.
I couldn’t stop thinking about what we were trying to accomplish. In between those nerves, though, my dad kept coming to mind. I wished that he could have been there. The day turned out better than I had hoped. It was full of great sportsmanship, friendship, and fun…memories that I would never forget. When all was said and done, we raised $26,000 for the kids and the vets!
It has been 25 years since 11 people gathered to donate a few bucks to the American Cancer Society and spend an afternoon pheasant hunting. Since our partnership with SCI, we have pushed past $225,000 raised…and since our start 25 years ago, past more than $350,000 raised! I know that if my dad could have seen this, he would have been very quiet. That was his way. But he also would have had the biggest smile on his face—and that right there would have been worth it all.
It goes without saying that none of this happens without the help of many, many people. Wern Valley Sportsmen’s Club and MacFarlane Pheasants in particular, but just as importantly, the many friends and family members who work tirelessly to pull this off year after year. THANK YOU.