Mark Whitlock, founder and president of Mark’s Outdoor Sports and a longtime conservationist, died Wednesday afternoon after a two-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
By Alan Clemons, Managing Editor
Whitlock, 52, founded the popular and well-known outdoors store in 1979 in Vestavia, a suburb south of Birmingham, Ala. Nestled in a strip mall on an incredibly busy highway a mile or so from a major interstate, he saw the growth of the small store into a jam-packed powerhouse retail business that won numerous local, state and national awards for sales and service standards.
But more importantly, Whitlock was a staunch conservationist and giver to his community, the state and the outdoors industry. For all the things he did publicly, Whitlock did many more privately and behind the scenes to help individuals, organizations and his church community without regard for accolade or recognition.
In 2010, Whitlock became the first two-time “Gold Award” recipient from the Alabama Retail Association for “Annual Sales of More than $5 Million.” Nine people or companies nominated Whitlock for the award, which he also won in 2008. Mark’s Outdoor Sports offers consumers the most recognizable fishing, hunting and firearms brands in the industry but also has embraced smaller “Mom ‘n Pop” items from Alabama producers.
Whitlock’s annual turkey, fishing and hunting days in spring and autumn attracted thousands of visitors to hobnob with industry notables. Joe and Jill Lunchbucket could come and chill out with Harold Knight, David Hale, Will Primos or some of the top professional bass anglers in the country. It was like a big outdoors party.
Whitlock founded the Lay Lake Open, known among anglers as “Mark’s tournament,” on the famed Coosa River impoundment and eventually had to cap the field entries after more than 700 boats registered for a couple of years. Anglers registered for years in advance. Top bass pros were paired with in-store contest drawing winners to compete in the tournament. Whitlock’s vendors gave away thousands of rods, reels, lures and other goodies to fans who attended the weigh-ins.
But the tournament wasn’t just about products and brands. Fishing teams had to take bags of bass fingerlings to their first fishing hole and deposit them there before they could start fishing. The stocking program helped Lay Lake, over the course of more than a decade, become one of the best on the river.
“The first year or two that we did the tournament, I realized they were just dumping out the fingerlings there at the launch area,” Whitlock told me a few years ago. “That didn’t help a bit! So we told ’em they couldn’t start fishing until they had put the fish out at the first stop.”
On Christmas Eve 2006, Whitlock and his wife received word that their 18-year old daughter had been involved in a serious vehicle accident. She was declared dead at the scene and forensic specialists began their work. Then a paramedic saw her move, slightly, and they began working frantically to save her life. They did. Read about it here.
Four years later, Whitlock was hit with another stunner when diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Through everything associated with that disease, Whitlock never gave in to the “Why me?” lamentations so many of us might proclaim. He always shrugged it off, battled valiantly, carried on at work, home, church and wherever as best he could.
I talked with two longtime friends Wednesday who were grieving at the loss of their friend and associate. Outdoors industry folks can get tight, and friendships develop that go way beyond selling crankbaits or churning out media content. Amid all the hustle, bustle and sometimes ugly side of the industry – and like any industry, there are good and ugly sides – there always are a few bonds that grow stronger and run deeper.
We lose good folks in our industry every day, folks who make impacts great and small, public and private. They become threads woven into our lives and then when tugged away, we’re left a little less whole. If you know someone like this who is important in your life, tell them you appreciate them, love them and are thankful for them.
A visitation period will be Friday, May 18, at 1 p.m. at The Church at Brook Hills, followed by a memorial service at 2 p.m. there.
Some comments from Facebook:
“For those of us in the retail tackle industry, we know Mark’s Outdoors as the benchmark. Our thoughts are with his family and employees.” — Darrell Newman, Keller’s Tackle & Grocery in New Hope, Ala.
“The fishing world lost a good person today. I gave him a big hug at the Mark’s Outdoors event 2 weeks ago. He will be missed.” — Mark Menendez, professional angler, Paducah, Ky.
“Our thoughts go out to the Mark Whitlock family. God bless him.” — West End Outdoors, Athens, Ala.
“What an incredible icon in our industry and community as well as (a) great family man who loved his kids and wife. I have great respect for Mark and all he stood for – sometimes without realizing it until he was sick and I reflected on things. I had the great fortune of learning from the best there has been and feel very blessed to have had the chance to do that. I will miss Mark.” — Geoff Walker, former Mark’s Outdoor Sports employee and outdoors industry rep