Annual hunt helps family heal after tornado's devastating blow

For Jerry Smith, the Kansas pheasant opener Saturday amounted to one more step in the healing process.

Just six months ago, his life was turned upside-down when a tornado ripped through his hometown of Greensburg in southwest Kansas. His longtime home was destroyed; he lost friends, and a good portion of his neighborhood was leveled.

But Saturday was proof that life goes on. When the pheasant season opened, Smith was back on his farm just a few miles outside of Greensburg as host of the traditional hunt that has become a big part of his life.

"My family has hosted opening-day hunts since 1956," said Smith, 68. "After the tornado, friends called me up and wondered if I wanted to skip it this year.

"But it was important to me that I kept it going."

Smith paused and looked out at the large group of hunters getting ready to go out.

"We've been doing this for a long time, but this opener is special," he said. "It's been a tough year. It's just good to get together with everyone and have some good times."

Smith still has vivid memories of the news coming out of Greensburg almost six months ago to the day.

When tornado sirens began to blare, he and his wife, June, headed for the storm cellar. They heard a loud sound - "It sounded like a sonic boom," Smith said - then were shocked to see total devastation when they emerged.

"You never think anything like that will happen to you," Smith said. "One friend of mine didn't have a basement, and the tornado just leveled his house. His body was found two blocks away.

"Another friend made it to the basement, but the tornado took all but his foundation away. It picked up his truck and dropped it right on him and killed him."

The Smiths lost their house and much of their belongings. But their farm a few miles out of town was left untouched.

They relocated to Pratt and have put their lives back together. And part of that recovery process for Jerry was playing host to family and friends for the annual pheasant hunt.

When the new season dawned, he was joined by his sons, Jay and Jon, and 19 friends from as far away as Florida.

"This group has been hunting together so long that we're like blood relatives," Jerry said. "My dad and one of his friends, Clark Ulrich, started this.

"They're both gone now, but Clark's son, Bert, and I make sure that this goes on. We don't want to let it die."

That tradition was very much alive Saturday morning. Before the sun even appeared, a long caravan was rambling down dusty back roads, headed for Smith's land.

Once the sky lightened, a crowd of hunters and dogs waded into a CRP field. And it wasn't long before pheasants were flushing and shots were being fired.

First, Jay Smith downed a pheasant as it flushed and flew in front of him. Then his dad took a bird as he blocked a field and waited for the long line of hunters to push birds his way.

"This is just good pheasant country," said Jay, who lives in Leawood and has participated in 38 openers on his family's land. "Even in the years when the rest of the state is down, there are birds here.

"I can't remember very many openers when we didn't do well."

Saturday's hunt didn't break that trend.

Surveys by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks showed that the southwest region was the place to go in Kansas this fall; that bird numbers there were among the best that they've been in recent years. And if Smith's hunt was any indication, that assessment was right on the mark.

As the hunters worked fields owned by Smith and his neighbors, dogs regularly went on point, hunters connected with shots and excited chatter carried across the fields.

By the time the group broke for lunch, it had 18 pheasants in the back of a pickup. And Smith was quietly taking in another moment to remember.

"Jay always says that this is the only day he likes better than Christmas," he said. "I can see why.

"When we get together like this, we always have a good time