Thanks Les, For All You Gave

By Howard B. Hanson

The conservation community lost its biggest supporter and friend when Les Kouba died in his sleep on September 13, 1998. Over the last four decades his paintings and limited edition prints have raised millions of dollars for worthy conservation organizations. We members of PERM should be especially thankful because if Les had not lent his great talent and name to our Save Minnesota campaign when he did, we may have been forced to throw in the towel.

Les Kouba was not only a great giver, he was an all around class act. He and his wife Orial were an inseparable and effective team when it came to supporting many civic and church organizations, too. He was also a great mentor to aspiring young artists. He continually gave of his talents and tried to inspire young people who sought his guidance.

In the early sixties a business friend had taken me to a Fur Fin and Feather Club luncheon at the old Elks Club down on fifth or sixth Street near Hennepin Avenue. That's where I first met Les Kouba, Jimmy Robinson and, a few years later, Jim Meger. Many of those relationships which started back then developed into long lasting friendships and business partnerships in my custom photo imaging business as well.

I'll never forget the speech Les made honoring David Maass as the Ducks Unlimited artist of the year at a luncheon at the Minneapolis Athletic Club sometime in the mid nineteen eighties. To hear the sincerity with which Les congratulated and extolled the excellence of David's talents was to this day, the greatest tribute I have ever heard one person bestow on another. It showed me how great a person Les Kouba was.

Les was not only a great artist, he was also a smart business man and an extremely hard worker. He had a brilliant, and I do mean brilliant, mind that put his paintings on more pieces of merchandise than can be imagined.

It was not all work and no play for Les, though. Les Kouba was also an entertainer. He could keep an audience of three hundred people in stitches while he talked and painted a watercolor in thirty minutes, upside down! If you had Les and his wife Orial over to a casual dinner party, Les would always have on a sport coat and neck tie. He would also have three harmonicas in his pocket, and if you forgot to ask him to play, he would figure out a way to remind you.

Since Orial died, my wife Carol and I had been having Les, and his constant companion Gary Jones, over to dinner every couple months to sign "Opening Day on Lake Mille Lacs" wildlife prints for PERM. Gary is a very talented graphic designer who has helped Les market his art and merchandise for many years. He also designed the masthead for the Resource Sentinel newspaper.

Carol and I had brought home some fresh Rainy Lake walleye, so it was real easy to talk Les and Gary into coming over. When Les got out of Gary Jones' 4x4 late Thursday afternoon, September 10th, I could tell by his gait that the old rooster had lost a little more zip. It had been that way ever since his by-pass operation a couple of years ago. Each visit brought a little bit older Les. But his greeting, firm handshake and dapper outdoor attire were the same old Les I had always known, and you couldn't help but admire how he was still painting every day and running his business as if he was going to go on forever.

Les loved coming over to our home. We live in a two and one half acre nature park on Minnehaha Creek in Hopkins. He loved to sit and look out our picture window at the song birds, ducks, geese chipmunks, squirrels and that occasional big buck. It was at one of these dinner parties in the spring of 1995 that Bud Grant, James Meger, Les and I created a business plan for the Save Minnesota series of limited edition wildlife prints to help PERM carry the Mille Lacs Treaty Case to the United States Supreme Court.

Les, Jim and Bud had all been involved in doing art prints for the conservation movement and they all shared the opinion that gillnets harmed fisheries, tourism and local economies. They also knew that anyone who questioned the Mille Lacs Band's motives or supported PERM could be unjustly labeled anti-Indian or racist, but they stood by our business plan and created the first two prints in the Save Minnesota series.

There is going to be a big hole to fill for the conservation community. We know many artists who have given more than enough, and others who are giving plenty to resource and conservation causes. But nobody-- and I mean nobody--gave as much as Les Kouba. Thousands of Minnesotans have his art on their walls because it captures a familiar, beautiful outdoor moment. Next time you look at one of his paintings, don't forget how much he did to help preserve the resources that make those moments still possible.

Thanks Les for helping us Save Minnesota. In my heart you were not only a great friend, you were also a great American.