The Depression was in full swing when Jim Killen was born in Montevideo, the western Minnesota burg that rests hard by the banks of the Minnesota River. The year was 1934 and Jim was the fourth of six kids in a family headed by Harold Killen, a baker, and his wife, Myrtle.
At age 11, Jim took odd jobs for wages at area farms, living where he worked. The money he earned helped support his family. Three years passed before he returned home.
By the early 1940s, pheasants were taking hold in Minnesota in a big way, with hunters felling more than 1 million ringnecks each fall. Surely young Jim would have bumped into these colorful birds while toiling in Chippewa County, and would have seen the mass migrations of ducks, especially canvasbacks, that arrowed through that country in October and November in those years.
One can envision the young boy, a rake or shovel in hand, with a farmstead in the background, composing in his mind's eye a painting of these flighted waterfowl, or of a pheasant perched on a rusty harrow behind a leaning chicken coop.
Such experiences were perhaps bellwethers of what Jim Killen's life would become. A wildlife artist and conservationist whose talents with a brush and generosity of spirit benefited not only ducks, pheasants and other critters, but also people, Killen died Saturday at his country home, near Owatonna. He was 89.
A lover of dogs, Jim and his wife, Karen, owned in their lifetimes 18 different breeds of canines. As a hunter, Jim was partial to Labradors, and his paintings of these retrievers, black and yellow, were among his best works. A winner among many such competitions of the Minnesota pheasant stamp contest, Jim included a golden retriever in his first-prize home-state portrait.
Arguably, Jim and Karen's 64-year love affair was a match made in heaven. Jim was in the Army, stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., when, apparently quite confident in his salesmanship, he asked Karen out on a date. That she was preparing to become a nun at the time seemed — to him, anyway — only a minor inconvenience, and in 1959 they married.
A southern Minnesota boy through and through, Jim by then had graduated from Minnesota State Mankato — known at the time as Mankato State Teachers College. He was a good athlete, turning in a 4:19 mile — speed that would serve him well when he was hired by Jostens, the maker of class rings, yearbooks and other memorabilia.
"Jim was a good artist, and early in our marriage Jostens moved him, and us, to Philadelphia, where he made calls with Jostens salespeople,'' Karen said. "A salesperson would sit down with a client, who might say they'd like an eagle or a wolf or whatever on their ring, and Jim would design it on the spot. It closed a lot of sales.''
In time, Jim was appointed art director at Jostens, where he worked with another legendary Minnesota wildlife artist, David Maass, now 94. Maass eventually left Jostens to paint wildlife fulltime, and in 1974, Jim followed him out the door.
By then, Jim and Karen and their four kids — Mark, Steve, John and Katherine — had settled outside of Owatonna on 160 acres, the stewardship of which became for both of them a labor of love and a place where Jim created ponds for ducks and food plots for pheasants, and planted trees — 20,000 of them — for his, and Karen's, peace of mind.
In 2005, in recognition of Jim's enduring support for Ducks Unlimited, that organization threw a tribute in his honor that attracted scores of friends and supporters from around the country, some of whom paid $10,000 to attend. Money raised helped offset the $340,000 purchase and construction of a wetland impoundment in the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area, about 20 miles from where Jim grew up.
Called the Jim and Karen Killen Waterfowl Refuge, the 110-acre habitat honors the more than $20 million Jim's contributed artwork has raised for Ducks Unlimited to conserve wetlands and wetland wildlife. Similar donations by the Killens have been made to Pheasants Forever and the National Wild Turkey Federation, among others.
A hunter, Jim considered his field exploits only one facet of his many interactions with the natural world, through which it, and he, benefited.
A man of faith, he trekked 44 times to the Demontreville Jesuit Retreat House in the Twin Cities to live for three days in silence, contemplation and prayer.
A believer in kids, Jim, with Karen, founded the Killen Classic Sporting Clays shoot in Rochester 28 years ago, raising in the decades since more than $250,000 for the Boy Scouts of America.
When Jim was diagnosed about a month ago with an aggressive form of cancer, the Montevideo boy who left home at age 11 to support his family could see the road's end.
Though the pheasants he witnessed so many years ago in Chippewa County, and the ducks overhead, are long gone, many of their progeny still thrive today in the woods, waters and fields Jim helped preserve for them.
Many others will live forever in his paintings.
Jim Killen's visitation is Saturday at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Owatonna, 10 a.m. to noon, followed by a Mass of Christian burial.