A long and winding career path

Don Kunkel might reasonably be looked at as a ‘Don of many trades’.

Born in Humboldt just a little more than seven decades ago, Kunkel, who now owns/manages the Owl’s Nest at Deer Park Golf Course, Kunkel has taken a rather winding road career-wise, finding successes at many of the stops along the way.

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The son of a Mayo Clinic-trained physician father, (Mel), Kunkel would end up being a cattleman early in life.

“We didn’t get in the cattle business until I was 15-years-old,” he said.

With some nudges from the likes of Dr. Bill Doyle and John Rutiger the Kunkel family was suddenly thrust into the Charolais cattle business just as the breed was making its appearance in North America from France.

“I became a steer jockey,” said Kunkel with a smile, adding he learned about showing cattle pretty much on the fly.

“The first animal I ever clipped was at the Toronto Royal Winter Fair.”

Kunkel’s training was simply having a good eye.

“I was watching all these guys who actually knew what they were doing,” he said.

Clipping cattle for the showring is a near art, and Kunkel must have mastered it well.

“I’d go to Agribition (in Regina) and I’d be getting $50 a head to clip cattle,” said Kunkel.

With Charolais being new to Canada at the time the breed was big news with cattle being imported regularly, including by the Kunkels.

“We were buying cattle in France, buying bulls for $10,000, females for $5-8000,” said Kunkel.

Back in Canada, the Kunkels were winning championships including taking a rare double at the first Agribition in 1971, winning grand champion Charolais bull and Grand champion Charolais female.

“I was probably in the cattle business 15-16, 17-years. We had one of the best show strings in Canada,” said Kunkel. “We had a lot of fun.”

From the success one might have expected Kunkel would have stayed dedicated to Charolais cattle but a rule change instituted by the then Pierre Trudeau-led Liberal government in Ottawa forced the Kunkels out of the cattle business leaving Don with a distaste for the Liberal party that remains until this day.

With the Charolais farm near Saskatoon gone, it was career change time for Kunkel.

For a time he sold real estate for Century 21, starting in sales, but evolving into management.

Then came a time selling furniture for a year “just for the hell of it,” he said.

Through those years Kunkel maintained an interest in art, a passion he first developed at age 12.

So it was no surprise he became involved in the art business, selling prints and doing framing.

“Then the art market went all to hell,” he said.

So Kunkel was on the look-out for a new career path, although he has kept working as an artist himself.

Through the years Kunkel has in fact come close to having his work grace a Canadian conservation stamp. He has been entering his works for a number of years in an annual Wildlife Habitat Canada competition where the final selected work goes on the annual stamp.

“Artists from across Canada enter,” explained Kunkel in a previous YTW interview. “It started out years ago when Robert Bateman did the first one … He’s just a wonderful guy. He’s absolutely the best wildlife artist working in the world.

“And he’s salt of the earth.”

Kunkel noted he met Bateman years ago when he was not doing much with his art, and he took the time to review his portfolio and encourage him to get back to painting.

The competition always highlights a migratory game bird.

Kunkel said the competition is one which gives many artists an opportunity. The competition attracts 50-to-75 entries each year.

“There are up and coming artists, and old codgers like me,” he said.

When someone has their work selected to grace a stamp one year, they have to sit out the competition two years.

While he has come close, he has yet to have a work selected for a stamp.

“I’ve had a top-five a couple of times,” he said.

Kunkel said he is also proud to have been involved in launching the Reflections In Nature Art Show that the Saskatchewan Wildlife Artists Association has ran continuously for 25 years.

As for the next career step, Kunkel finally found his way to Yorkton taking on the dual role of manager for the Yorkton Exhibition Association and the then Agriplex, (now Gallagher Centre). When the job split, he stayed with the City side of the pair, holding the position for a decade.

“And I loved every minute of it,” he said. “I had a lot of fun.”

A large part of the fun was the shows the Gallagher Centre hosted under Kunkel.

“We brought a lot of entertainment into the city at the time,” he said, pointing to concerts by Johnny Reid, and George Jones, as well as the Irish Dance troupe and the Lippizan horses.

Kunkel was quick to share the credit though.

“I had great people around me, an outstanding bunch of staff,” he said, adding that is something he has always looked for, good people.

“Surround yourself with good people and they’ll make you look good,” he said.

Kunkel is currently vice-president of Golf Saskatchewan, something he came to focus on more once he settled in Yorkton, although he noted “I started playing golf when I was seven years old,” although it took a backseat to cattle and other things through the years.

Kunkel said the position is a two-year term, and by its end will mark six years on the Board for him. He added if he were to be re-elected, he could find himself president, which is typically what occurs.

For Kunkel becoming involved in golf at the executive level was a natural, as he has long been a lover of the sport, and as a junior was close to making the Saskatchewan team on a couple of occasions.

When he moved to Yorkton Kunkel became involved in rating courses in the province, and a seat on the provincial board was a sort of progression from that.

As an organization Golf Saskatchewan represents 120-plus courses in the province, those which have chosen to be part of the provincial body.

The number of courses has been constant for several years.

“There haven’t been any new golf courses built in a while,” said Kunkel.

Kunkel said Saskatchewan is fortunate to have the courses it does.

“There are an awful lot of nine-hole courses in this province, some outstanding nine-hole courses,” he said.

And through those courses the association represents some 11,400 golfers.

“It’s been kind of flat (in terms of numbers), but there has been some growth,” offered Kunkel. “A lot of courses are getting smart, very creative … As a whole golf has held its own well in Saskatchewan.”

Kunkel has actually long been involved in sports, starting out in his youth playing hockey. He would eventually coach, including at the Juvenile level, before ending up in the Saskatchewan Hockey Association.

While enjoying hockey as a player, and in an administrative role, the sport also played a sort of ‘cupid’ role in Kunkel’s life.

While playing for the Walter Murray Midget team Kunkel was invited to the coach’s home to be fitted for new CCM Tack skates. The coach’s daughter Wendy was there.

“Wendy was having a fight with her mother,” said Kunkel. “She was in curlers wearing a red blouse and black pants. I looked at her and thought ‘I’ve got to take this girl out’.”

Kunkel was 15. He took Wendy out, and would later marry her.

The couple have two children, son Todd in Saskatoon, and daughter Wendy Dawn in Russell, MB.

Kunkel said her daughter was born without sight, and while an eye transplant was suggested a recent procedure has given her sight.

“She has seen her first raindrops in 37 years. She had never seen a blade of grass,” he said, adding “you have to appreciate how good our health care is.”

The marriage has lasted too, with the couple’s 50th anniversary set for 2020.

Kunkel said his wife has said he has to stick around for the anniversary, something he has every plan to do in spite of being diagnosed with the degenerative pulmonary fibrosis.

The condition is a lung disease that occurs when lung tissue becomes damaged and scarred. This thickened, stiff tissue makes it more difficult for the lungs to work properly. The lung damage caused by pulmonary fibrosis can’t be repaired.

“I just appreciate every day that I have,” said Kunkel, adding “I’ve went a whole year with no change” a positive in terms of the condition.

Still, as he looks back he has done enough interesting things “for three, or four lifetimes.”

© Copyright Yorkton This Week

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