Every year, Izaak Walton League chapters across the country present the Judge John W. Tobin Award to one of their members. To receive a Tobin Award is a singular and distinct honor because it represents a chapter’s acknowledgment of a member whose outstanding volunteer contributions to the chapter have made a difference.
But just who was Tobin? Why is a national League award named after him? And why are we talking about it in connection with the IWLA Endowment?
Tobin was born in 1895 and lived pretty much his whole life in and around the city of Vinton, Iowa. He joined the family law practice of Tobin, Tobin, and Tobin in 1919, shortly after returning from service in France during World War I. He used to refer to himself as the “and Tobin” of the firm, behind his father, M.J. Tobin, and his older brother, Hamilton Tobin.
John Tobin’s service in France was humorously documented in a chapter of his book, With No Intention (1979). He arrived in France as a private in the Signal Corps, expecting to be sent to the front lines. Instead, the armistice was signed and he was assigned permanent KP duty for the remainder of his tour. During World War II, he was a “dollar-a-year-man” as regional director for war bonds sales in eastern Iowa, with sales of more than $100 million in his area. In 1954, Tobin was appointed district judge for Benton, Tama, and Marshall Counties, where he served until 1970.
Judge Tobin wrote two books during his lifetime, and both are eminently readable, entertaining, and informative. Whereas With No Intention was of limited print and distribution, intended primarily for his wife and daughter, his second book, Tobin Tales (1986), had a much broader audience. These Tales draw on memories that span nine decades, including the final years of the 19th century and 85 years of the 20th. Thanks to the efforts of Martha Long of the Benton County Historical Society, we now have both of Judge Tobin’s books in the library at the IWLA national headquarters in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Despite his many years in legal practice and on the bench, Judge Tobin is perhaps even better known for his conservation work.
Tobin joined the Izaak Walton League in 1923, one year after the League was founded. He worked with the League at the local, state, and national levels and served as the League’s national president in 1952 and 1953. (He was the first person ever to be nominated and elected as president from the floor.) He also served many years on the Executive Board and, in 1974, was named to the League’s Hall of Fame.
His conservation activities could fill an entire book by themselves. He fought (somewhat unsuccessfully) to prevent the Army Corps of Engineers from building dams on the Iowa River and other rivers, he donated 50 acres of virgin timber on the Cedar River to the Benton County Conservation Board for parkland, and in 1935 he arranged to have 10 white-tailed deer from a park in Boone, Iowa, introduced into Benton County. As to the deer, that small herd has now grown to the point where some folks consider them a nuisance.
One of Tobin’s great passions was fly fishing for smallmouth bass in the lakes and rivers of Iowa and Minnesota, where he would take (sometimes drag!) his daughter, Patricia, and teach her the basics of fishing and the beauty of the outdoors.
His commitment to conservation can be traced back to an event that he documents in Tobin Tales. He was visiting with James Poweshiek of the Sac and Fox Tribes, who was the oldest American Indian living in Iowa at that time. Poweshiek was looking around at the devastation caused by the white man’s “progress” and spoke extensively, with scorn and derision, of what was becoming of this beautiful land. His words affected Tobin deeply.
In the lifetime of that one old man, the countryside and the people who lived here had completely changed. For the first time, I came to realize that in the years still ahead in my own lifetime, civilization’s voracious consumption of the lands and waterways would continue, hastened by newly invented, marvelous machines, in order to meet modern mankind’s relentless, insatiable demand for financial gain and creature comforts.
From that day on, I felt a compulsion to do more in preserving, as far as possible, a wholesome environment in our outdoor America. Years later, while serving as national president of what had become a prestigious conservation organization, I was asked during an interview, “What is it that the Izaak Walton League is doing?”
My answer was categorical: “The Izaak Walton League is trying to save America from suicide.”
In 1976, Judge John W. Tobin established a trust fund to pay the cost of an annual award for League members who serve their chapters by effectively and continuously pursuing the conservation goals of the League. Judge Tobin stipulated that this trust fund be administered by the IWLA Endowment. Since that time, the Endowment and the League have worked cooperatively together to recognize outstanding chapter volunteers with the Tobin Award.
Judge Tobin died in 1989 at the age of 94. But in his writings, you will find a very close parallel between his ideals and those articulated in the League’s current five-year strategic plan. But that’s no surprise. Implementation and opportunity may have changed, but the core values of the League remain much the same. As you read Tobin’s writings, you realize that he was a man of intellect, integrity, morality, commitment to conservation — and a man of humor. The kind of guy you would like to go fishing with and later sit down with and have a beer.
So next time you give or receive the Judge John W. Tobin Award, you’ll have a better appreciation of exactly from where this award is coming, its meaning, and the man who made it possible.