In much of Kansas, the outdoors begins one step off the porch, a place where the opportunities to take game predate recorded history and continue today. For one hunter, it’s a pastime that’s as much social as it is sporting.
Barry Sullivan was seduced by the dominion of the Kansas wind at a young age, unable to resist the temptations of the prairies, farm fields, lakes and wetlands within trekking distance of his home in Ulysses.
His father, Jerry, was a hardworking rancher and grain trader who raised nine children in southwest Kansas. And while not an avid hunter himself, he inspired and encouraged his three sons to participate in outdoor sports.
With a household of 11, the Sullivans lived a relatively austere life, and firearms were necessarily utilitarian. One Christmas, the three boys received BB guns, subsequently learning gun safety and maintenance. Eagerly, they practiced shooting at cans and crudely drawn paper targets for bragging rights. As the three matured in the ’60s, they graduated to a .410 hammer shotgun, but excessive practice with the unloaded gun broke the firing pin, rendering it unusable for opening day of pheasant season.
There were strict rules for storage and proper handling of guns in the Sullivan home, and the boys were penalized several times for violating them. These life lessons resulted in a respect for guns, as they realized a simple, careless mistake could be fatal.
By age 12, Barry Sullivan finally bagged a pheasant, using his dad’s Remington Model 870 12-gauge shotgun, an affordable and popular gun. By that point, the die was cast.
Waterfowling piqued the boys’ interest, and along with that duck calling. Sullivan also found that he had a knack for breaking clay targets at the trap range.
By the time he reached high school, Sullivan occasionally was able to work an after-school hunt into his schedule. He joined in one hunt when – as incongruous as it may seem, given today’s strict policies regarding guns on school property – some friends met him just outside the school.
“They had all their hunting gear out in the car,“ he says. The boys changed and headed to the field.
For a significant portion of Kansans, guns are deeply interwoven into family, social and recreational life.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the number of the state’s paid hunting license holders for 2017, the most recent year for which numbers were available, was 245,779. That number has shown a fairly steady increase over the preceding 10 years.
Sullivan’s hunting heritage is particularly focused on pheasant hunting. For decades, family friends from Texas and New Mexico traveled to Ulysses to hunt with the Sullivan clan. One year, three generations of the family participated in the hunt, including Sullivan’s sons and his father. Although original members of the group of hunters have passed on, an annual western Kansas hunt is still on his calendar. He has only been AWOL a few times in 45 years.
Over the years, Sullivan’s hunting interests broadened. While a student at Kansas State University, where he pursued a degree in business, classes sometimes took a backseat to waterfowl hunting. As populations of deer and turkey exploded, he put new quarries in his sights.
Kent McConaughey, who introduced Sullivan to stalking turkeys and has shared hunting adventures with him since the seventh grade, says, “We learned most of our tactics and strategy the hard way, by making all the mistakes.”
But he acknowledges that those carefree days of their youth, when simply reveling in being outdoors might have been enough, have passed. “We always plan our outings for success, keeping in mind the wind, weather and topography,” he says. “With limited time to devote to our outings these days, every minute counts. Technology like Google Maps and The Weather Channel assist us to maximize the odds.”
For Sullivan, who lives in Overland Park, guns are a means to be successful when afield. His favorite is a well-worn Browning BSS shotgun that has served him well for years. Although he owns a variety of firearms, all meticulously cared for, none are particularly valuable or rare. However, he is the keeper of his granddad’s heirloom .45-caliber military service sidearm, which he proudly shows to those who appreciate its significance.
While Sullivan is not a member of the National Rifle Association, he is an ardent supporter of gun rights. He believes law-abiding citizens should have the right to purchase firearms for legal purposes and safely store them in their homes.
He abhors gun violence, and while he can’t offer an immediate solution for mass shootings, he thinks that some form of firearms qualification training and competency test administered by law enforcement could weed out some people bent on doing harm. “Cities such as Chicago that have enacted strict gun control rules have certainly not found the key to reducing homicide rates with guns,” he says.
Sullivan remains linked to the land as the farm manager for family acreage in northeast Kansas. His use of sustainable farming practices dovetails with providing wildlife habitat. That, in turn, provides hunting opportunities for family and friends.
These days, he prefers hunting waterfowl and upland birds, especially pheasants. But he says the anticipation and memories created with family members, friends and business associates are the main attractions.
“The lasting partnerships and camaraderie in the field are just as important as shooting bag limits of game,” he says. “A few unforgettable, safe hunts per season with cherished companions satisfies my yearnings.”
He has passed the outdoors tradition down to his three sons: Brad, Steven and Brian.
Brad Sullivan intends to get his young son engaged in hunting at the appropriate time. “I have had the privilege to hunt with Dad and his friends since I was able to walk the fields,” he says.
“The hunting heritage will continue and hopefully never fade in the Sullivan family.”
A version of this article was originally published in the Winter 2019 edition of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit https://www.amazon.com/Journal-Kansas-Civic-Leadership-Development/dp/B00DHU4X44/.