The 2017 Duck Stamp Contest: A Once in a Lifetime Experience by Richard Prager –  Part One

Introductory Note: As we get closer to our official launch, today’s blog marks an exciting milestone in the development of the Waterfowl Stamps and More website – a blog post created entirely by someone other than David Torre. This post was provided by Richard Prager and it relates his experience serving as a judge at the recent federal duck stamp contest. The text and the images were provided exclusively by Richard, with only a minimum of editing on our part. So please, enjoy…


A Dream Weekend

A dream weekend for this long time Stamp Collector – being a judge at the annual Federal Duck Stamp Contest really fulfilled one of my life dreams. While most know about Ding Darling and the first Duck Stamp from Ding’s drawing – not everyone knows about the actual art competition where the art for the duck stamp is chosen, and all the folks involved to make for an amazing weekend.

One name I certainly did not know was Christine Thomas, Dean of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point (UWSP). I soon learned that not only was Christine a former judge, but she was also the driving force to bring the contest to UWSP which I can personally attest was a very good decision.

Unlike last year in Philadelphia, this year was packed with spectators including a cross section of Artists, Wildlife Enthusiasts, Hunters (yes hunters), Conservationists, Movie Directors and Stamp Collectors (at least one – yours truly). The pride of the UWSP was apparent and between the Alum and the local Ducks Unlimited Chapter – they were committed to host a memorable event – they did not disappoint.

Upon arrival on Thursday at 3pm at the Noel Fine Arts Center, I was met by Suzanne Fellows – the Duck Stamp Office Program Director. I met Suzanne via email a couple years back when she asked me if  I would be an alternate judge for the 2016 competition. When she asked me, I disclosed I was the Executive Producer of the Million Dollar Duck movie to which she said “Oh no, that could be a problem”. The movie was scheduled to premiere at he Duck Stamp Contest in Philadelphia.

Suzanne did not want any artist to think I was too close to the movie artists and may know their entries – which I did not. However, I totally respected her concern for any perception issues – besides, Suzanne just asked if I would mind delaying one year. Thus it was very much to my surprise and delight when I received an email a few weeks ago asking if I would mind being a full judge this year – needless to say, I said YES!

OK, back to orientation. At orientation, we first had a chance to preview the entries which were being exhibited and then we all gathered in the “green room” next to the Michelsen Music Hall where the competition was to take place. Here I met the five other judges including the alternate. Little did I know when I was first introduced to the judges how close we would become over the next 45 hours.



Noel Fine Arts Center.



The judges were:

  • Dr Jacob Straub – Jacob was the Alternate last year in Philadelphia. Jacob is a waterfowl biologist and the Wetlands Waterfowl Conservation Chair in the UWSP College of Natural Resources.
  • Jane Kim – Jane is an artist and science illustrator. She is the founder of Ink Dwell and her art can be seen in numerous places including on the walls at Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  • Robert Spoerl – Bob is a retired beer/liquor distributor and lifelong hunter. Bob was one of the many engaged UWSP Alum and he serves on Ducks Unlimited National Board of Directors.
  • Tim Pearson – Tim is an artist and a fly fishing guide. Tim paints mainly watercolors inspired by the waters surrounding the wilderness of Lake Superior.
  • Richie Prager – yours truly is a lifelong Duck Stamp collector. In recent years I have become more interested in the Duck Stamp artists and their work. I also supported the Million Dollar Duck movie.
  • Roberta Laine (Alternate) – Roberta is an artist and the retired Art Director at Stevens Point Area Senior High. She currently teaches design in the interior architecture programs at UWSP.


As one can see, the judges collectively represent all the requisite skills; artists, biologists, water fowlers, conservationists, stamp collectors… I for one think Suzanne and the Duck Stamp office did an exceptional job of assembling a quality panel.

After we met each other in the green room  – we received instructions from Larry Mellinger who is a solicitor, at the US Department of the Interior. Larry is truly a legend in the contest – this year was his 27th consecutive competition. Larry cited the regulation; Part 91 – Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Contest, and explained that not only was the Duck Stamp contest the only government sponsored art competition; but the rules were actually governed by law. Larry told us we were to look for the following criteria:

  • Anatomical accuracy
  • Artistic composition
  • Suitability for a duck stamp… meaning, will it shrink down to a 1 3/4″ x 1 1/2″ stamp and still look good?


To assist with anatomical accuracy we were assigned a waterfowl biologist from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Walt Rhodes. Walt is a pilot who is stationed in Bend, Oregon – his day job is conducting waterfowl counts. Not only was Walt an expert waterfowl biologist, he was a really great person who provided valued guidance to the judges and he was a pleasure to spend time with.

Part of the orientation included going on stage where where the actual contest was going to take place. Here we acclimated to the environment including the partitions between the judges to ensure each judge was not influenced by another judge.



Judge in training.



After orientation the judges were treated to a full program that evening. Of course the evening plans served two purposes; 1) to entertain us and 2) to keep us sequestered. As in parallel, the College of Natural Resources and the College of Fine Arts and Communications sponsored the showing of the Million Dollar Duck movie to the public. After the movie, the director and artist actors gathered on stage to take questions. On stage were Director Brian Davis, artist actors Adam Grimm, Tim Taylor, and Rebekah Knight – so I am told. I would have loved to be with them as I fell very connected to the movie.

As for our entertainment, we visited the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Museum of Art. We were met by Kathy Kelsey Foley, Museum Director, and her talented team including Jane Weinke. The museum had a special show – The Eligible Five which featured the five species at this year’s competition:

  • The Gadwall Duck
  • The Mallard Duck
  • The Blue-winged Teal
  • The Cinnamon Teal
  • The Harlequin Duck


The experience exceeded expectations. Not only did the museum’s Kathey Kelsey Foley, Jane Weinke and one other senior staff member serve as prior Duck Stamp contest judges; but the museum is the home of two original Duck Stamp contest winners. There have been many contest winners from the state of Wisconsin, perhaps the best known is Owen J. Gromme, the 1945/46 winner (RW12). The Museum had a special alcove with Grommes’s original winning entry, a print of the art, a pane of stamps, the original letter informing Gromme his art was selected for the stamp and some early sketches of the painting. According to David Torre, the contest actually became a judged event starting in 1950.



Owen J. Gromme original Winning Entry.



The museum also had Nancy Howe’s 1992/1993 winner (RW58). Coincidentally, Nancy Howe was the reigning winner the year Larry Melllinger started with the competition. While at the museum, Larry and I chatted about the 50% increase in entries this year, 227 up from 153 last year. I offered two theories on the increase; 1) the Million Dollar Duck movie and 2) Dave Torre’s new website – Waterfowl Stamps and More. Larry offered an additional theory that hosting the contest in Wisconsin attracted many local artists. In the end we agreed there were many catalysts and we were happy to see the increase.

While many artworks in the exhibition are worth mentioning, the only other piece I will note is a 2015 original from Maynard Reece  – yes, a 2015 original – he is still painting – just amazing. I would recommend the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Museum to anyone. After the museum, Suzanne and Rachel Levin from the Duck Stamp Office hosted Larry, Walt and the judges and spouses to dinner at a local restaurant in Wausau. In a few short hours, from 3pm through dinner, bonds were being formed.



Nacey Howe original Winning Entry.



Although I was exhausted from a long day that began at 3:30am EST in Connecticut, at 10:30pm CST I was feeling anxious for the next day. While I always wanted to judge the contest – it dawned on me there would only be one winner and everyone else would be disappointed. I love all the artists – now I was going to disappoint all but one. Finally, I fell asleep.


Day One

Day one of the contest started at 8am for the judges to preview the entries without the public. I reviewed all my notes from the day before. I set up my system of preliminary votes. Round 1 requires the judges to simply vote “IN” or “OUT” with the majority of three IN’s required to advance to Round 2. At 9am, the judges were sequestered again in the green room. As you can tell, the judges had a lot of time together. One nice thing came up as we got settled in – Christine turned to me and said she did not know I was in the Million Dollar Duck movie. She watched the movie the night before and heard from the Director that I saved the film. While I did help Brian, I think it is an overstatement to say I saved the film – Brian did all the work and deserves all the credit.

During the next hour we had several visitors from the regional and national US Fish and Wildlife offices. Christine Thomas sat with us. It soon became apparent she was the “Belle of the Ball”. Christine was credited as the visionary who not only thought to bring the contest to UWSP, she was persistent and tenacious until she captured the contest. Everyone who came to visit us first paid their respects to Christine.

The hour went reasonably quickly as we all talked and learned more about each other – this included Walt and Larry who were tethered to us for the duration. Larry Again reminded us of the rules and out to the audience we went, seated in the front row awaiting to be announced. We then listened to several remarks from USFW officials, the mayor and of course Christine, whose remarks were both personal and inspiring. The common themes across all the speakers were the intersection of the arts, conservation, and hunting. There was an UWSP Alum thing going on at the same time – all speakers on day one were alum – a coincidence?



Contest Master of Ceremonies.



We got down to the real business of judging a bit later – closer to 11am. Then we went through 215 entries. There were 227 submissions – 11 were eliminated by the Duck Stamp office for not complying with the rules and another was was eliminated that morning. The primary disqualifying offenses were: the wrong species, having signed the entry or having a bird band with numbers shown. That morning we also had to call on Walt for guidance. Entry No. 89, a Gadwall, was just stunning. However, some of the secondary feathers were green. Walt was quite certain these were too green. He said he would do more research and let us know. Once the voting began we went for 76 entries straight, and then took a break to stretch our legs. Larry warned us that we would go until about 12:30pm and then take 30 minutes for lunch – in the green room of course. After our short break we voted through entry No. 132 and then broke for lunch.

At lunch we remarked on how everyone in the room knew how we all voted, including Roberta, the Alternate – except the judges themselves – we only knew how we individually voted. It was clear to me the panel had a high bar. On many occasions when I voted “IN”, the collective vote was “OUT”. My personal philosophy was to be more generous in Round 1 – then let the final rounds determine the winner. We reconvened after lunch and went straight through entry No. 227 without another break – it was 2:30pm by then. At this point there were 55 survivors out of the 215 we voted on. We then retired back to the green room for more instructions.

Then came the second part of Round 1 – all the judges were given the opportunity to review all the entries that were “OUT”. Each judge was given a piece of paper and told they could bring back a maximum of five entries – that is 25 possible additions to the 55. I do recall Larry telling us that never in the history of the contest, or at least 26 prior contests, did any entry that was brought back by a judge go on to win the contest. Even knowing that fairly powerful fact, nine entries were brought back – I brought back entry No. 95. Something about the black and white entry captured my attention – the contrast was striking. Note: none of the nine went on to Round 3 – Larry can now say “never” for 27 years.

We finally had some free time – that said, we were not entirely free. The judges still needed to avoid artists or any conversation about the voting. I did see Rob McBroom and went up to shake his hand. I was clear I could not speak to him – I just wanted to shake his hand so he would not think I was rude. We had never met face to face; though we had been in touch via email. His entry, No. 68, did not make it through – I did give him a sentimental “IN”. I then went on to say hello to Jim Hautman, who had won the year prior. He recognized me which was nice and we chatted a bit. He started to say something about this brother Bob’s entry and I stopped him before he could say anything… my only close call.



Five time winner Jim Hautman and Richie Prager.



After a quick picture, I went on to see the booths set up outside the auditorium. AMPLEX was there as were some Duck Stamp clubs. Sam Koltinsky was there with some very unique artifacts from Ding Darling. Sam is driving the Ding Darling Foundation forward – a quest that is near and dear to Sam given his relationship with with Ding Darling’s grandson Kip. Being Friday, a work day for me, I went back to the hotel to catch up on my day job and get some rest.

The judges and the Duck Stamp office gathered at 5:30pm in the hotel lobby and we went to SentryWorld for a reception. The reception was hosted by Ducks Unlimited (DU), the College of Natural Resources and the College of Fine Arts and Communications. There were more remarks, one from our fellow judge, Bob Spoerl who was representing DU: Bob called out a former Duck Stamp Contest winner in the audience, Martin Murk. Martin stood up to applause. Martin is one of the many former Wisconsin winners, along with Walter E. Bohl, Owen J. Gromme, Arthur G. Anderson and Sherri Russell Meline.

The evening was social and I was able to catch up with some of the Million Dollar Duck movie gang. I saw Rob McBroom again – at this point we both knew he was out, but we said it was better we did not chat. Tim Taylor was there – he did not have an entry this year – was nice to catch up with Tim. Brian Davis and I chatted for a bit. He wanted to meet Jane Kim who also contributed to the movie as a Kickstarter –  such a small world. We found Jane and I introduce them. Suzanne collected us at about 8pm and back to the hotel we went. I, for one, was truly exhausted and unlike the prior night – I just crashed.



Continue to Part Two


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