Ken Pruess Remembered – Part One

It is with a heavy heart that I report the passing of a friend and fellow collector, Ken Pruess, on Sunday, December 11, 2016. Ken was a long time revenue stamp collector, author, exhibitor and APS accredited judge. With regard to fish and game stamps, I would like to say that he was one of the legendary pioneer collectors. However, his low key approach to collecting and his personal modesty prevented him from becoming a household name in the hobby.

In the past, I have avoided talking too much about Ken or giving him a lot of credit for the important work he has done. Knowing Ken the way I did, I did not feel that he would appreciate it. He was a humble man and it was not his style. Now that he is gone, I would like everyone to know just how much Ken did for our hobby.



Ken Pruess was born in Troy, Indiana on June 21, 1932 to Elmer and Clara Grass Pruess. Growing up in Indiana, Ken loved to hunt and fish, especially for trout. After graduation from Chrisney High School (in Chrisney, Indiana), Ken attended Purdue University and earned a B.S. in Entomology. He then earned both a Masters and a Doctorate in Entomology from Ohio State University, graduating in 1957. It was at Ohio State that he first met Neva Currie. They became good friends in grad school.

Ken’s passions for trout fishing and entomology soon became inextricably combined in the form of a lifelong interest in fly tying. As a a leading entomologist, you can imagine that Ken tied some pretty good flies and he was rightly proud of this ability. It was these related interests that drew him to collect, at first, trout stamps and then fish and game stamps in general (see Figures 1a and b).



Figure 1a. In 1962, Ken purchased the first Delaware trout stamp sold. Note the trout is leaping from the water in pursuit of a fly.



Figure 1b. Application for stamp number 1, shown above.



After leaving Ohio State, Ken began his career at the University of Nebraska in 1957, working at the university’s North Platte Experiment Station. He would stay in North Platte until 1965, when he joined the Entomology Department at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

While living in North Platte, Ken often drove over to Colorado to Fish. According to Neva, Ken “was strictly a bank and wade fisherman. He never fished from a boat. He Liked the small Colorado streams with beaver ponds where he fished for brook trout” (see Figure 2).



Figure 2. Ken enjoys fishing for trout in a Colorado stream, below a beaver pond. Photo courtesy of Neva Pruess.



Ken attended the Rocky Mountain Conference of Entomologists, held in the Colorado National Forest, during the summer of 1962. Neva, who was then teaching Biology at the University of Oklahoma, also attended the conference. They went on a long hike together, got lost and fell in love. As Neva likes to say, “When you climb a mountain your heart starts pounding and you think you are in love.” They were married on June 15, 1963 (see Figure 3).



Figure 3. Ken fishing at Lake Agnes, Colorado. The mountain behind the lake is the one they climbed together in 1962. From this spot, Ken could fish and remember that day he and Neva got lost together. Photo courtesy of Neva Pruess.



Neva told me, “Lake Agnes in Colorado was a favorite spot. We hiked there almost every year from the mid 1970s until last July. The cutthroat trout photo, the high mountain lake species, was one he caught this year [2016]. He hadn’t caught any there for several years but he did well this time. They were all carefully released” (see Figure 4).



Figure 4. The last trout Ken caught and released at his favorite fishing spot, Lake Agnes. Photo courtesy of Neva Pruess.



The Green River in Utah was the largest stream Ken fished. He caught brown and rainbow trout there. Ken fished for for rainbow trout in many different stocked ponds in Colorado and Nebraska. Neva says, “We ate his catch limit of those. He cleaned them and I cooked them”.

Around home, Ken fished the local lakes for pan fish: blue gills and crappies. He only varied from fly fishing in the winter, when he went ice fishing for trout at local winter stocked lakes and for bluegills and crappies. Even then he used lures he tied himself.

Ken taught Entomology courses at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln for over 30 years, achieving Emeritus status in 1997. He continued to go into his office on a regular basis right up to (and including) the day of his death. He loved to teach and he conducted advanced research on a wide variety of insects. Throughout his life, Ken continued to fish and tie flies (see Figure 5).



Figure 5. Ken holding one of his flies.



In his (semi) retirement he not only got more involved in his many hobbies, he gave many talks about them as well. He gave one such talk as recently as September 29 of this year, at the Senior Entomologists Symposium (see Figure 6).



Figure 6. Ken talking about his passions: fishing, fly-tying and stamp collecting.



Ken also became somewhat of an Ebay addict late in life and spent much of his office time putting lots up on Ebay. Neva told me the last thing he did the day he died was to put three lots up on ebay. While driving home from campus, Ken suffered a massive stroke. He was taken to the hospital, where he managed to hold on for three more days.


A Mentor

Ken Pruess was not only a mentor to his college students but to myself as a fish and game collector as well. I was introduced to Ken by mutual friend E.L. Vanderford in the 1980s. Throughout the decade, I made three or four trips a year to the midwest, visiting my wife’s family in the Minneapolis area and conducting business in and around Minnesota. I made a point to visit with Ken on most of my trips.

When Ken and I first met, we spent a lot of time talking about stamps and science. I was a pre-med student at Sonoma State University at the time and took a lot of science classes (eventually earning three science degrees). Perhaps the biggest interest Ken and I shared – aside from fish and game stamps – was a passion for genetics. We had many lively discussions late into the night and most of them were not about stamps.

For the first several years, our philatelic relationship centered on me buying and trading for his duplicate fish and game stamps. Ken enjoyed trading and made a point to acquire quantities of duplicates from the likes of Charles Bellinghausen, Art Soderling and Vanderford.

Ken was an active exhibitor and was perhaps the one person most responsible for my decision to exhibit. He informed me of the trials that previous fish and game collectors had endured in an attempt to get philatelic judges to take our material seriously. These were very advanced collectors, mind you, including Hall of Famers Joseph Janousek and Les Lebo (see Fugure 7).



Figure 7. This First Place awarded to Joseph Janousek for his incredible fish and game exhibit would prove to the exception, rather than the rule.



When I finally made the decision to go ahead with it, Ken was one of my biggest supporters. Not only did he provide me with tutorials on exhibiting – he allowed me to acquire all of the great rarities from his own collection. Until now, Ken has never received proper credit for originally collecting most of these stamps.

In my opinion, Ken Pruess had one of the finest fish and game stamp collections of all time – definitely in the top five. Long time collectors are going to be very surprised as we go through this series of posts, for in them I will reveal Ken to be the source of many of the featured items in both mine and the Cspalar’s award winning exhibits. Ken’s stamps can also be found in most of the areas on this website.


A Team Player

Our goal was to put together such a powerful fish and game exhibit that the judges would have little choice other than to recognize it as such. In this way, we would level the playing field for future exhibitors of fish and game stamps.

It took several years to acquire all the pieces to this puzzle. Bert Hubbard, Les Lebo, Ken Pruess and E.L. Vanderford were of the invaluable help during this time – it was very much a team effort. While Ken was willing to sell me some of the items I needed outright, he really preferred to trade. After we ran through all of my fish and game duplicates, he wanted other items I did not have and knew little about – other types of state revenue stamps.

Though I did not have the stamps Ken desired in trade, another friend of mine did – Elbert Hubbard. Bert lived a couple hours from me in California. I had been visiting with him once a month for years, purchasing fish and game stamps and licenses from his vast collection and, subsequently, as he ran across duplicates in his storage areas.

It turns out that Ken and Bert used to be good friends too and they made deals together for decades – before having a big falling out. I really don’t remember which of us first suggested the idea, but we soon developed a mutually beneficial arrangement that went like this:

While Ken was reluctant to sell me the great fish and game rarities in his collection, he was willing to trade them to me for equivalent non fish and game state revenues. Though I did not have these, Bert often did. Bert and I got on well and he was willing to sell me items from his collection – as long as I paid him top dollar.

I would pick out a few fish and game stamps from Ken’s collection and he would give me a list of stamps that he would take in trade – stamps that he knew Bert had in his collection. I would fly back home, drive down to Bert’s and show him the list. He would pull the stamps out of his collection and tell me how much money he wanted for them.

I did not know – nor did I care – how much Bert’s stamps were really worth. My only concern was whether I would be willing to pay that amount of money for Ken’s stamps. Most of the time, it worked. After I acquired the stamps from Bert, I held on to them until my next midwest trip. Then I brought them out to Ken in Lincoln and we completed our trade (see Figure 8). This arrangement went on for for six years.



Figure 8. I can remember being thrilled back in the 1980s, when I acquired this page of Virginia Elk stamps from Ken in trade for some rare California state revenues I had purchased from Bert Hubbard.



When the exhibit was finally ready, I picked Westpex (1992), in San Fransisco, to debut the exhibit Classic State and Local Fish and Game stamps. This was my home town show and the one my father used to drive me to when I was a young boy. Ken and Neva drove out from Lincoln to attend the show and exhibit Ken’s New York Stock Transfer Tax. We were both happy to receive a beautiful Westpex gold medal (see Figure 9).



Figure 9. Westpex Gold Medal.



Not only did Ken directly help me to obtain many of the key items in my exhibit, he also introduced me to other fish and game collectors throughout the midwest. We frequently exhibited at shows together and often critiqued each other’s exhibits (after I started to catch on). Ken often judged my exhibit at National shows and since he knew my material so well, he was (for many years) able to point out its weaknesses to the other judges (thanks, Ken). I judged his New York Stock Transfers once and could find very few weaknesses.

Over the years, my exhibit got better and better until one day in 1999 – a  National Grand Award was finally bestowed upon a fish and game stamp exhibit. I am honored to say that one of the members on the jury was my old friend, Ken Pruess.


Able To Share In Recent Successes

Lat year, Will and Abby Csaplar first showed their amazing exhibit, A License and Stamp System for Waterfowl Conservation in the 20th Cenury U.S. They chose Westpex to debut their exhibit – the same show I debuted mine at back in 1992. As they did in 1992, Ken and Neva drove all the way out from Lincoln, to exhibit his California Agricultural Proration and show their support for Will and Abby.

At the awards banquet, my wife and son, Kay and Eric, and I shared a table with Will, Abby and Linda Csaplar, Ken and Neva, Michael Jaffe and Michael Mahler. Everyone was happy as the Csapalars, Ken and both Michaels received Westpex gold medals and the Csaplars won the ARA Grand Award their first time out (see Figures 10 and 11).



Figure 10. Ken is happy to receive a Westpex gold medal in 2015.



Figure 11. The Csaplars won the ARA Grand with an exhibit featuring some items that were formerly in Ken’s collection.



I was even happier when I found that Ken had brought with him, to Westpex, a set of Oklahoma Crow Hunting stamps he had promised me 30 years earlier. These were not required to hunt and are considered philatelic “Cinderellas”. However, they are really cool and Ken had the only set recorded. He exhibited them at national stamp shows for decades in a fun exhibit, The State of Taxes. It was one of Ken’s prized possessions and now he wanted me to have them (see Figure 12).



Figure 12. Ken’s Crow Hunting stamps. Note the write-up on this exhibit page was done years earlier – the North Dakota Crow Control stamps are no longer scarce.



This year (2016), the ARA meetings were held at the Sarasota National Stamp Exhibition. Once again, The Csaplars and Ken received gold medals but this time it was “turn about makes fair play” as Ken’s fine exhibit, New York Stock Transfer Tax, won the ARA Grand. I am now very grateful that Kay and I shared a table with Ken and Neva that night and were able to enjoy the experience with them. Ken was surprised and, as usual, very humble when accepting the award.



Continue to Part Two


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