"Fishing with Dad during the Great Depression"
"Fishing in Appalachia"
"A day’s trout fishing for Friday night fish fry. In later years, Mr. Dunegan would become an early supporter of catch and release practices, always reminding fisherpersons, "Never touch a fish with dry hands!" He also purchased fingerling trout and restocked over-fished streams using his own funds, living out the conservationist motto, "Replace what you take.""
Harry Dunegan, my father, was
the first, average-person, conservationist aka environmentalist, I ever
met. Born in the coal-mining town of Clymer, Pennsylvania, he was an
eye-witness to the destructive nature of coal-producing operations.
Irish Catholic and an avid outdoorsman, he loved fishing and hiking
the hills, mountains and streams of Appalachia. More than once I saw
him grieve the loss of a pristine trout stream to acid, orange mining
At our home in Chattanooga,
TN, he used every opportunity to teach about the environment. Formally
educated as a ceramic engineer, he had a scientific mind and a deep
passion for nature. He became a self-taught naturalist, studying botany,
herpetology, and ichthyology, as well as soil conservation. He converted
the basement of our home into a breeding center for freshwater native
and tropical fish, and created one of the first collections of salt
water fish to exist in the Chattanooga area. At any given time during
the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, our basement housed an impressive
number of turtles, salamanders, snakes and other reptiles. He kept them
all in pristine aquariums with naturalistic environments.
In the early days of aquarium-keeping,
electric lights, chemicals and air compressors were not used. The true
naturalist established mini-ecosystems within the tanks, maintaining
a precise balance between water quality, aquatic plants, scavenger species
and fish. Dad’s aquatic displays reflected those unique skills. His
practice was to collect a specimen, house it for a time so that we and
interested others could study it, and then release it back into the
Our basement aquarium was open
to anyone at no charge. Children and adults spent hours there, fascinated
by glimpses into underwater worlds. Crayfish, mud puppies, seahorses,
even piranhas graced the tanks of Dad’s assemblage well before
the widespread existence of public aquariums. His “hobby” enabled
average people to experience rarely seen aquatic life. Visitors left
our home with a deeper understanding and a greater appreciation for
Field trips also expanded our
knowledge. On hot summer days Dad would collect the neighborhood children
and any interested adults who wanted to tag along. Then he would gather
up his seines, (a type of net), and transport us by Jeep or boat to
a slew, creek or stream to sample its health. He explained the concept
of food chains, identified wild foods and rare plants, and showed us
how to assess the health of a stream. Using the nets we would seine
an area of the stream and count the number of vertebrates and invertebrates
we found living there. While sampling he taught us the names of minnows,
darters, and a host of other creatures we discovered hiding under the
wet rocks. Sadly, few streams today yield the abundant variety of aquatic
life a single dip of the seine could produce in those years
Recognized locally as an expert,
his skills were sought by the Tennessee Game and Fish Commission, where
he regularly volunteered his services. He set up and maintained the
native fish displays at the county fair each year and assisted at educational
programs the Commission sponsored. Always willing to share his knowledge,
Dad remained available to answer any and all questions, even if visitors
remained until the wee hours of the morning.
My father was responsible for
the health and safety of the giant, four-foot catfish on display during
fair week. He opposed the dry handling of fish, and pioneered catch-and-release
practices by teaching wet-handed techniques for handling fish to protect
their slime layers. This insured the health of the fish and prevented
the post-release development of fungus. He would then supervise the
release of the giant catfish back into the Tennessee River.
His interests also included
soil conservation and he was an early supporter of recycling. He taught
us the about trees and conducted tree planting expeditions when hundreds
of trees were planted to prevent erosion. He also taught us how to sort
metals, and encouraged the recycling of metal, paper and glass years
before the advent of Earth Day.
My father taught me that standing
up for the environment was not always easy. He funded and conducted
a breeding project to reintroduce Bobwhite quail into an area that had
been over-hunted. His project ended abruptly when a vandal took a shotgun
and killed hundreds of birds. His entire breeding stock was destroyed,
as well as cages and equipment, while the quail sat helplessly inside.
Once while traveling late at
night through uninhabited parts of the Tennessee mountains, we saw a
fire burning in the depth of the forest. Concerned about the possibility
of a forest fire, Dad sought out the mouth of an old fire trail and
followed it back to the fire. There he discovered a stolen car that
had been stripped and set ablaze. He cleared nearby brush from the area
and stayed watching the fire until it was no longer a threat to the
He worked with school children
on science projects to test ways to neutralize acid mine drainage. He
purchased fingerling trout and restocked over fished trout streams.
But my most instructive memory came on a day when one of our neighbors,
surrounded by a group of young children, was showing a boy how to shoot
woodpeckers with a BB gun. The man had just shot a bird, and was displaying
the wounded creature to the children, when Dad arrived. He confronted
the neighbor with what he had done.
“This is a rare bird, and
there are not many left,” he said. “You should not be teaching these
children to kill woodpeckers. Instead, you should be trying to save
I felt the cruelty of the man’s
laughter as he mocked my father’s efforts to save the dying bird,
for I was one of those watching children. Yet as children can, I sensed
the weakness behind the destructive act. At that moment, I realized
that I had a choice. I could grow up to be like the man who killed woodpeckers,
or I could grow up to be like my father. I knew no one else who had
wonderful and interesting things like fish, snakes and turtles living
in their basement. No one else could keep giant catfish alive and return
them to the river, instead of frying them up for a meal. That day I
realized that not everyone sees nature as something beautiful to be
cherished and protected. With the senseless death of that magnificent
bird, and the cruel man’s laughter echoing in my ears, I knew that
it would not be easy to grow up to be like Dad. But somehow I knew I’d
have to try.
Thank you, Harry Dunegan. Your
life stands as a testimony to the great good an average man of courage
and conviction can quietly accomplish. This organization and website
are respectfully dedicated to you, because without your influence and
example, they would not be here.
Happy Birthday, Dad. May the
Good God grant you a heaven full of woodpeckers, pristine trout streams,
crayfish and hellgrammites, and a seine always full of the interesting
things you taught me to love.