Bill Dance receives AutoZone Liberty Bowl Distinguished Citizen Award as thousands raised for St. Jude

TV fisherman receives Distinguished Citizen Award

By Bryan Brasher
Courtesy of The Commercial Appeal
June 29, 2014

Since 1972, the list of winners of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl Distinguished Citizen Award has included world-class businessmen, legendary entertainers and giants of the college football coaching world.

Now it includes the world's most famous fisherman as well.

During Sunday's 20th annual Liberty Bowl Golf Classic Pairings Party Dinner at the Hilton Memphis Hotel, fishing legend Bill Dance of Eads was presented the Distinguished Citizen Award, placing his name alongside giants like FedEx CEO Fred Smith, football coaching legend Paul "Bear" Bryant and AutoZone founder Pitt Hyde.

For perhaps the first time in his long career as an entertainer, Dance was nearly speechless.

"To see my name among the many notable people who've received this award is overwhelming -- especially because of the support this program tonight is providing for the children of St. Jude," Dance said. "Helping someone in need is what life is all about, and seeing all of these people in this room here to help St. Jude tonight is amazing."

Besides the award presentation, live and silent auctions were held to raise money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Items included hunting and fishing trips to choice destinations around the country and tables of autographed sports memorabilia from area colleges like Memphis, Tennessee and Alabama.

Dignitaries present at the ceremony included Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, Bass Pro Shops owner Johnny Morris and Tim Weiser, the deputy commissioner of the Big 12 Conference.

Morris said he made the trip from his home in Springfield, Missouri, to see his longtime friend receive the special honor.

"I'm here because I think the world of this guy," said Morris, who founded the first Bass Pro Shops store in his hometown and built the business into a nationwide chain. "We opened our first Bass Pro Shops in 1972, and Bill came up for the grand opening. I just can't express what a supporter Bill has been -- not just to Bass Pro -- but to the sport of fishing and the outdoors as a whole."

Dance spoke for about 25 minutes during his acceptance speech, stressing the importance of never giving up.

"If you own a dog, every time somebody knocks on the door for years and years, that dog will be the first one to the door," Dance said. "He tears around the corner, knocks over the table, knocks over the flower arrangement. He does it every time -- even though it's never for him.

"My point is he never stops trying -- and that's the way we all should approach life."

Dance was one of the most successful professional bass anglers of the 1960s and '70s, and many believe he would have made millions on the pro trail if he hadn't chosen a career in television.

His show, "Bill Dance Outdoors," aired its first episode in 1968 and is still airing weekly on the NBC Sports network. Dance also hosts "Bill Dance Saltwater," which is carried by the Outdoor Channel and focuses mainly on inshore saltwater species like redfish and speckled trout.

"I'm one of the luckiest men alive because I've been able to take a hobby and turn it into a profession," Dance said. "I'm honored to be on a list with these fine people, and I'm honored to be here in this room with all of you helping St. Jude tonight."

The final auction item of the night was a fishing trip with Dance and Morris that sold for $22,000.

Dance, Morris still show pure class despite enormous success

By Bryan Brasher
Courtesy of The Commercial Appeal
July 6, 2014

During his latest stand-up special, "Voice in my Head," the brilliant comedian Christopher Titus talked at length about meeting his hero, Bruce Springsteen, backstage after a concert in Los Angeles.

Titus said he had always been nervous about meeting celebrities for fear they wouldn't be all he hoped. But after spending a couple of hours around Springsteen, he realized the biggest people can sometimes be the nicest people, as well.

I thought about Titus's remarks last Sunday night at the Hilton Memphis Hotel as I talked with Bill Dance and Johnny Morris just before Dance was awarded the AutoZone Liberty Bowl Distinguished Citizen Award.

With all due respect to fellow greats Roland Martin and Tom Mann, Dance is the most famous fisherman in the history of the world.

He's sold more lures, entertained more people with his television shows and been directly or indirectly responsible for more people taking up the sport of fishing than anyone else ever has or will.

Yet when you talk to him, he always makes you feel like you're doing him a favor by taking the time to stop and chat.

He was nearly unrecognizable Sunday without his famous oversized glasses and trademark T-cap. But he was easy to find in the crowd because he spent so much time standing to respectfully acknowledge anyone who walked over to greet him.

I posed for a picture with him -- a rare picture, considering he wasn't wearing a Tennessee cap and I wasn't wearing an Alabama cap -- and he put his arm around me, the same way he did the very first time we stood in a room together.

That's just Bill: Millionaire, superstar and all-around good guy.

Compare that to the behavior of some of today's younger "celebrity" fisherman, and it's downright disheartening.

Many of those young bucks are known as "pro fishermen" only because they don't have other jobs. They've accomplished nothing beyond wearing fancy-looking shirts and cracking a few corny jokes on the weigh-in stand.

But you speak to them, and they look at you like they'd just as soon slice your jugular as spend a few minutes chatting and promoting the few sponsors they have.

On the flip side, Dance still sends a thank you card to every writer who does a story about him with a line that reads "Without people like you, people like me wouldn't exist."

I've always want to write back with a playful "Yeah, right." But instead, I've just stacked the cards in a drawer among some of my other prized possessions.

Then there's Morris.

Speaking of millionaires with as much class as money, Morris made a special trip Sunday to see his longtime friend and the face of his Bass Pro Shops Kingdom earn his special award.

Morris isn't just the owner of the Bass Pro Shops super chain, he's the founder. He's the reason Bass Pro Shops stores can be found all over the country -- the reason the city of Memphis is buzzing about the new store coming to the Pyramid -- and the reason BPS catalogs are sitting on millions of coffee tables all over America.

But when I approached him at the bar, he couldn't wait to gush about his friend.

When I started the interview, I promised I'd be out of his hair before the ice in his drink had a chance to start melting. But once he finally finished gushing about Dance, he had a water-downed drink and I had more first-class remarks than I could use.

I won't name any of the younger pros who seem to think a little too much of themselves for no particular reason. The purpose of this column is not to throw anyone under the bus.

I simply wanted to point out that these two giants of the industry seem to remember how they reached the top -- and that their paths and current behavior could serve as blueprints for a lot of folks who are still trying to make it there.

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