It’s been a couple of months since Butch Richenback of Rich-N-Tone Duck Call fame passed away. Despite time going by, I felt I would be doing our readers an injustice by not including some insight into the man and how he impacted our sport. Duck call maker. World Champion caller. City councilman. Baseball coach. Mayor. Just a handful of the many hats Mr. Butch wore throughout his lifetime, which ended June 29, 2015 after a long battle with cancer.
Harry Milton “Butch” Richenback lived his entire life in Stuttgart, outside of a stint in the United States Marine Corps from which he was discharged because of medical issues. Never married. Never had children. But a common theme that would appear throughout his life was Butch’s desire to mentor young people.
Mr. Butch started the Rich-N-Tone brand in 1976 after learning the intricacies of duck call making from the legendary Chick Major of Dixie Mallard fame. Major had been a tutor to Richenback, guiding him to the 1972 World Championship and the Champion of Champions in 1975. Out of loyalty to Major, Richenback held off selling his duck call design until Major passed away.
Rich-N-Tone Calls have won over 100 World Championships and numerous state, regional and youth contests. The brand now sells over 70,000 calls a year under the leadership of John Stephens, a Stuttgart native and former World Champion himself. Richenback sold the company to Stephens in 1999 but stayed involved and was a permanent figure in the front window of the RNT shop on the north end of town.
I have some vivid memories of meeting Richenback for the first time and frequenting his old shop on Grand Avenue behind the old Mack’s Sporting Goods store on Michigan Ave. I encourage readers that don’t know the history or are new to RNT to drive by 803 N. Grand Avenue in Stuttgart the next time you are in town. The small gray metal building is still there and the visual will go along way toward explaining how far the company has come.
My first visit to the Rich-N-Tone shop would have been in the mid-1980s while I was still a teenager and Butch was a one-man show hand-turning duck calls on his lathe. There was no apparel, no videos, no computers and no mass production. Each call was truly handmade by Butch himself. Imagine sawdust and shavings everywhere, a few old, rickety recliners and an old dog to keep him company. He barely looked up when my Dad and I would come into the shop. Conversations were terse, with a hint of “Why are you in here bothering me?”
To be honest, I was downright afraid of the guy. The word “cantankerous” comes to mind. Reminds me somewhat of the famed “Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld. Come in, do your business and be on your way. Follow the protocol, don’t touch anything and make it quick. There was no time for small talk. A quick transaction for a duck call tuneup included an exchange of cork and reed; Mr. Butch would hit a couple of notes then hand it over to see if I liked the sound. Even if I didn’t I rarely said a word other than “Thank you Mr. Butch” as we headed out the door.
Fast forward to when the new shop opened next to Mack’s. As time would go by and the company grew by leaps and bounds, Mr. Butch’s personality evolved. I don’t claim that we were close personal friends, but I do think he recognized me when I walked into the shop. I don’t hunt too far from the current RNT shop and we had established some rapport over how the hunting was on the farm and sometimes we even talked a little baseball.
How was this the same guy from 30 years previous? Richenback was more than eager to strike up a conversation. Regardless of how long the line was or how many amateur callers talked and blew his ears out, he was cordial and patient. I would leave there telling my sons “You would not believe that was the same guy that I encountered when I was your age.”
Rich-N-Tone calls are all I have ever blown. The two calls I would take into his shop in the mid-80s are in a display case in my house. I switched to the RNT Short Barrel awhile ago and put those hand-turned calls up for safekeeping. My Dad owns a hand-turned ivory call that Mr. Butch advised him to take off his lanyard because he’d seen them go for upwards of $3,000. The ivory call has yellowed over time and represents an incredible collector’s item. The Ducks Unlimited museum inside the Memphis Bass Pro Shop has one in a display case.
Mr. Butch was truly a legend. Not only for the calls he crafted but also the influence he had on countless youth in and beyond duck hunting. The RNT roster of callers that have gone on to win World Championships is impressive and many started as students in his youth calling clinics. Life lessons learned in his clinics and private sessions extend far beyond the Main Street contest stage. Richenback’s devotion to inspiring the youth of Stuttgart through duck calling and baseball will be missed. I don’t think anyone will replace Mr. Butch but hopefully a few folks carry on the legacy and mentoring of future generations.