With packing boxes and invoices everywhere, Bob Bealle's studio hardly resembles the place where he created the oil painting that graces this year's Federal Duck Stamp.
"It looks like a factory. I don't have a place for my easel," said Bealle, a Waldorf farmer and former taxidermist. "I don't have time to get too excited. I'm too tired."
Then he laughs.
When you've dreamed about something for nearly three decades and had your heart broken a half-dozen times, you're allowed to be a little giddy.
And when people from around the country — hunters and art collectors alike — want to spend lots of money for autographed versions of your work, you push the easel into the corner and get signing.
On Friday, Bealle's dream came true when officials issued a stamp featuring an American wigeon at a ceremony at Bass Pro Shops Outdoors World at Arundel Mills. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service representatives unveiled the $15 stamp, and a postmaster canceled first-day issues.
But the lead-up — the part Bealle still can't believe — came together on a rainy day in October at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel.
Two hundred twenty-four entries were on display, vying for the honor of being selected for the 2010-2011 stamp. Five judges sat in the darkened auditorium and held up a card labeled "in" or "out" to narrow the field.
On Day Two , the judges — including former Congressman Wayne Gilchrest — used a five-point scale to cut the competition even more.
I was sitting almost directly in front of Bealle and his wife, snapping pictures as the judging dragged on. A runner-up in 1983 and finalist in several other years, Bealle looked to be in agony.
By the end of the third round, Bealle was tied with the 2004 winner of the contest, Scot Storm of Minnesota.
"It was like a 'Mad Max' movie, and we were the last two people on Earth," Bealle said.
This, thought Bealle, was his last chance to win.
"I'd come so close before, and there were so many younger artists, talented artists. I thought, 'This has passed me by.' I knew I had something really special, and I knew if I didn't get it this time, I wasn't going to win, ever," he said.
Finally, contest organizers held the two 9-inch-by-12-inch paintings side by side as the judges gave them a final inspection and voted. Bealle won by two points, becoming the first Maryland native to take top honors.
At once overjoyed, gracious and relieved, the artist thanked everyone in sight and posed for every camera. He shook my hand twice, maybe three times.
A twist is that in 1983, Bealle's painting of redhead ducks lost to a depiction of a pair of wigeons. This time, his wigeon beat a pair of wood ducks.
As he headed to the now-deserted parking lot after the contest, Bealle turned to his wife and asked, "My God, did I really win?"
When she assured him it happened, they celebrated with dinner at Ledo's Pizza.
Ninety-eight cents of every dollar paid for the federal stamp is used to buy real estate. Since its 1934 creation, the stamp has raised $750 million to purchase 5.3 million acres for habitat protection. In Maryland, the money has bought 31,000 acres of wetlands.
"It's important for everyone, not just waterfowlers," said Chris Jennings, a spokesman for Ducks Unlimited. "It's birders and boaters and fishermen — everyone who enjoys our wildlife refuges benefits. …There's no way you could conserve that amount of land without the stamp."
Now comes the unglamorous but lucrative part: signing commemorative cards and copies of his painting, some of which cost $1,100 each.
Under contest rules, Bealle can't enter for three years. Will he return?
"I may be like Jim Brown, who retired from football [in his prime] as the all-time leading rusher," he said, joking. "I've been chasing this thing for so long. Do I want to come back and maybe become an also-ran, or do I want to count my blessings and go out a winner? By the time I'm eligible, I'll be 61, and there's so many other things I want to try."
Linhard on board
Maryland retained its at-large seat on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Council last week with the selection of Steve Linhard of Annapolis.
The recreational angler and conservationist replaces Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, who was term-limited.
The 19-member board, one of eight in the country, develops fisheries management plans for the federal waters from New York to North Carolina.
Linhard, 43, is the chief administrative officer of St.Mary's Parish and Schools in Annapolis. He is the former treasurer at St.John's College and former controller of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Linhard has been active in the Maryland Legislative Sportsmen's Foundation and the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. He is the former chairman of the Annapolis chapter of Ducks Unlimited and served on the Severn River Commission and Annapolis Environmental Commission.
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