The Director Dish

On January 25, 2017, UNP author Paul Johnsgard was honored by the Center for Great Plains Studies with a lifetime achievement award. Johnsgard, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska, has authored eighty-five books (I apparently missed a couple dozen when counting them up), twenty-five with the University of Nebraska Press. A much recognized and respected ornithologist and artist, Johnsgard fell in love with Nebraska when he first came here, primarily because of the migration each spring of Sandhill cranes to the Platte River. Below are remarks that I made at the dinner honoring Paul.


Thank you, Rick, for the honor of recognizing Paul Johnsgard, the author. And that is an understatement, for Paul has published more than seventy books, nearly twenty-five with the University of Nebraska Press alone. And here is a staggering number for you: Paul’s books with UNP have sold nearly 90,000 copies.

By the way, Paul, in case you are wondering—your best-selling book with UNP is Waterfowl, which was published in 1968 but is no longer in print. Do we need to take a look at that? Should we bring it back? Other best sellers are North American Game Birds; Those of the Gray Wind; Ducks, Geese, and Swans; and Crane Music.

For us at the University of Nebraska Press, Paul represents the ‘ideal’ author—he is based in the prairie, he understands the prairie, he has a passion for the prairie, and he has incredible knowledge and understanding of the prairie, which he is dedicated to making accessible to the general reader. I love going into the Rowe center or another museum shop and seeing many UNP books—and in particular, Paul’s books on birds, whether it be Crane Music or Sandhill and Whooping Cranes or Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie. I love it, not just because it represents another opportunity for someone to purchase a UNP book, but because it means that when they do, they will enter into this wonderful world of dancing cranes and, to quote a somewhat famous song, amber waves of grain. They will learn about the differences between and among birds—what is a Sandhill crane and what is a whooping crane—and they’ll learn about the lives and habits of these amazing birds. And let’s not forget that so many of his books are illustrated with his wonderful line drawings. Personally, my favorite is Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie. I love the little tidbits in the essays. Here’s an example.

In speaking about white pelicans, Paul describes them this way:

Its almost cartoonlike profile, with an impossibly long, pouched bill and a waddling gait on land that reminds one of an overweight uncle, is impossible to mistake.

I love this:

Of all these annual passages, seeing the cranes arrive and depart is always the most heart-tugging for me. They represent my deepest emotional connection to Nebraska and one of the primary reasons that I decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life here, less than a year after setting foot in the state for the first time.

9780803253377Paul’s books with UNP aren’t just limited to birds. They include a book about Lewis and Clark on the Great Plains, various rivers in Nebraska, even prairie dogs. But he’ll always be most appr
eciated and celebrated for his work with birds,  his nuanced depictions of these complex creatures, his lovely line drawings of them—bold and smooth and deceptively simple, like the birds themselves.

Thank you, Paul, for being a prolific chronicler of the great plans. The University of Nebraska Press—and all of our readers—have truly benefited.

-Donna Shear (@donnashear)

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