William Cullerton, 1923-2013
WWII pilot, entrepreneur, radio host and well-known outdoorsman championed conservation
By Graydon Megan, Special to the Tribune
Bill Cullerton was a fighter pilot ace, popular radio host and successful salesman, but he will perhaps be best remembered for his love of nature, which brought him numerous recognitions. (Tribune photo 1998 / October 9, 1998)
His ability to connect with people helped build his hunting and fishing equipment business and also made him a natural leader in conservation efforts, including the establishment of an artificial reef in Lake Michigan for fish habitat.
He also was a key player in raising public awareness and support for the salmon sport fishing industry in the Midwest.
For 20 years he hosted "The Great Outdoors" show on Tribune-owned WGN Radio before retiring in late 1999.
"He helped build the outdoor sporting goods industry," said Charlie Potter, who succeeded Mr. Cullerton as host of the long-running Sunday morning show.
Mr. Cullerton, 89, died of natural causes Saturday, Jan. 12, in Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, according to his son Bill. He was a longtime resident of Oak Brook and also had a home in Marco Island, Fla.
He grew up helping his grandfather Bill Jamison make and sell a line of what are now collectible fishing lures. "That's where he got his interest and love of the outdoors," his son said.
Mr. Cullerton was a World War II fighter pilot ace, with 27 enemy planes destroyed, including six shot down in dogfights and 21 destroyed on the ground in dangerous low-level strafing runs, according to author and family friend John Kevil Jr., who recently published a book on Mr. Cullerton's military service.
Mr. Cullerton was born in Chicago and grew up in Oak Park. He graduated from Fenwick High School there and attended college briefly but left to join the Army Air Forces, eventually flying a P-51-D Mustang fighter from an air base in Steeple Morden in England as part of the Dragon Squadron. Kevil's book is titled "The Last Dragon of Steeple Morden."
Near the end of the war, Mr. Cullerton was shot down behind German lines. He evaded capture for a time but was caught, shot and left for dead. A farmer found him, mistook him for a German pilot and brought him to a nearby hospital in a town under German control. According to Kevil, a Jewish doctor helped him escape and he was eventually rescued by an American advance unit.
Back in Chicago after the war, he rejoined his grandfather in the Jamison fishing lure business.
"When he came back from the war, he was famous," said Illinois State Senate President John Cullerton, his cousin, who said he often met with Mr. Cullerton over lunch to talk politics.
"I always kidded him that if he hadn't escaped, O'Hare (International) Airport might have been named for him," John Cullerton said. "He'd say, 'Sorry, I got away.'" (The airport is named after Edward "Butch" O'Hare, an ace pilot who was shot down during the war and never made it back.)
In the 1950s, Mr. Cullerton started his own business, selling equipment for camping, fishing and hunting as a manufacturer's representative.
"He had all the big lines and he knew everybody," Potter said. "For 50 years he was the biggest manufacturer's representative of outdoor equipment in America."
Mr. Cullerton was a regular promoter of outdoor shows, helped establish the fishing travel business, and pushed for conservation efforts including a pilot project to provide fish habitat with an artificial reef in Lake Michigan off Chicago. He was also an advocate for restoration of the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington, Ill.
His conservation efforts in Illinois were recognized in 2000 when the Illinois Beach State Park and North Point Marina were renamed the William J. Cullerton Complex. He was also inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wis., and into the Illinois Conservation Foundation Hall of Fame.
Mr. Cullerton is also survived by his wife, Elaine, whom he called "Steve" after her maiden name; daughters Pamela Brinkman, Cynthia Giesche and Christine Picchietti; another son, Marc; 19 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 3 to 8 p.m. Wednesday in Adams-Winterfield & Sullivan Funeral Home, 4343 Main St., Downers Grove. Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Thursday in Ascension of Our Lord Church, 1S314 Summit Ave., Oakbrook Terrace. (Article from Chicago Tribune)