Willms marks 45 years as hunter safety instructor

Waukesha, Wis. — Lawrence Willms was never a big time hunter, but he has always liked shooting and that interest brought him to teach firearms safety to almost 6,000 kids over the last 45 years.

To be exact, over those 45 years he has educated 5,948 future hunters, and likely prevented injuries and saved lives in the process.

DNR Warden Kyle Drake said Willms started those new hunters down a safer path.

“In 1967, when Larry started teaching, there were a lot more injuries and deaths during the deer hunting season,” Drake said. “He is one of the very few I know who has been at it so long, so we decided to honor him at the Daniel Boone Conservation League facility, where he first started teaching.”

Back in 1967, which was the first year of DNR-approved hunter education classes, there were 267 injuries and 21 deaths during the year, thanks to a lack of firearm safety training. Volunteer instructors like Willms have turned those numbers around.

“In the last three of four seasons we didn’t have any fatalities during the gun season, and we only have one pending hunting fatality accident for the whole year,” Drake said. “Clearly, hunter safety education is working.”

In 2013, there were 27 incidents for the full year with one fatality. In 2012 there were 28 incidents and four fatalities; in 2011, 26 incidents and two fatalities.

Willms, of Waukesha, was never devoted to hunting. He was more of a shooter, and started teaching hunter safety as a young buck of 21.

“I really wasn’t a hunter at all,” he said. “I was into shooting sports and wanted to pass along my knowledge to kids. When I finally started hunting, I didn’t own land, so I had to hunt various camps with friends. It was frustrating switching camps a lot.”

Then, Willms suffered a stroke, and had open-heart surgery, too, which limited his hunting time.

“I might still be hunting but my health wouldn’t allow it,” he said. “I could get to my stand and stuff, but I was very winded. And the doctors don’t want me shooting because of the open heart surgery.”

Willms’ father was an NRA instructor before hunter education classes existed. The junior Willms sort of followed in his father’s footsteps.

“Aside from how long he’s been an instructor, it’s just amazing that he started so young, at 21,” Drake said. “He wasn’t even a hunter at that point, but cared enough to get people started safely.”

Willms has a ton of stories from his years in the classroom, but he’ll always remember one kid.

“I was teaching two brothers; one wanted to take hunter safety and one didn’t,” he said. “The kid was not a very good shot and just wasn’t enjoying himself. I love helping figure out why a person is shooting poorly and that’s just what I did with this kid.”

Willms always carries an eye patch to put on when he shoots – a trick some people use if a person is right- or left-eye dominant. He pulled the patch out and had the boy try it. Before long he was shooting tight groups right in the bull’s-eye.

“I changed that kid’s life,” he said. “His mother told me he went on to love hunting and shooting. His mom told me later that he had been in a bad accident as a little kid and when he blinked, he had to close both eyes. That’s what was making him shoot poorly. The patch fixed the problem.”

Willms’ said he likes to prod parents of young students to take the course, too.

“I never bothered them too much, but just wanted to make them feel welcome and that it’s important that they are safe around guns, too,” he said.

One woman was reluctant to take the course, but finally agreed. Afterwards, she was thrilled that she had gone through it.

“She told me that she used to be up at deer camp and all of the men would come in during lunch and pile their guns in a certain corner,” he said. “She said she was always so afraid to go anywhere close to the guns, but after she took my course she felt totally comfortable in handling and moving the guns if she needed to.”

At age 67, Willms hopes to at least teach hunter safety until he hits the 50-year-anniversary mark. That means new students – and even former students who return with children of their own – will continue to see Willms at the Daniel Boone Conservation League, located in Richfield in Washington County. The club has served as the site of Willms classes for all 45 years.

“Heck, I’ll keep going after that,” he said. “I’ll try to take every plateau as it comes.”

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