Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida Board Chair Richard A. “Dick” Corbett has spent his life conserving nature and supporting our country’s outdoor heritage. Growing up in Rochester, NY by Lake Ontario, he credits his father, Donald Corbett, for instilling a life-long love of the nature in him and his siblings. An avid outdoorsman, Donald was also a star athlete who played quarterback under fabled coach Knute Rockne at the University of Notre Dame.
Having learned to hunt and fish at an early age, Dick has many fond memories and stories of his days in upstate New York, from pheasant hunting with his pet collie and a 20-gauge Remington 870 to bagging his first eight-point buck at age 14. In the process, he learned to appreciate the importance of maintaining wildlife habitats and managing game species for their long-term health. Most of all, he learned how wonderful nature can be. “It’s so important for children to have a parent or mentor to take them into nature, away from cell phones and all that,” Dick says.
Dick was also an entrepreneur from a young age. While in school, he and an older brother turned their love of photography into a business, Campus Color, that specialized in photography for school and dance portraits. The business was successful and helped pay his tuition at Notre Dame, where he and his older brother followed in the footsteps of his father. He excelled at Notre Dame, becoming the senior class president and developing a relationship with the University President, Reverend Theodore Hesbergh, which led to meeting Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon, and John F. Kennedy. Dick later joined the Kennedy White House staff and later served as finance manager for Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. He was with Robert Kennedy when Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
It was just a few years later that Dick met the love of his life, Cornelia Gerry Corbett, a ski instructor, photographer, and bird hunter. The couple went camping annually with their four (now grown) children, often in the true wilderness of Canada and the American West. All four children and five grandchildren now share Dick and Cornie’s outdoor ethic.
Dick and Cornelia spend much of the year at Pinckney Hill, their 17,000-acre property in Monticello, FL, a complex of woodlands, wetlands, and meadows in north Florida’s Red Hills. The property is expertly managed for native Florida wildlife, including game species. Pinckney Hill is particularly known for its traditional quail hunting: hunters on horseback following pointers through the longleaf pine forests and brush. Rodney Barreto, like Dick a former Chair of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, has likened the experience and challenge of quail hunting at Pinckney Hill to playing in the Master’s at Augusta. For Dick, it’s a daily reminder of the importance of getting children back into nature. “Not everyone wants to hunt or fish, but everyone deserves the chance to spend time in nature,” Dick says. “My main message to parents is to get kids outside to enjoy the beauty. Let them have fun and discover their outdoor passions.”
As Chair of the FWC Commission, Dick concentrated on expanding publicly accessible hunting lands and opening FWC Youth Conservation Centers. One camp established during his time on the Commission is the Beau Turner Youth Conservation Center in northern Florida. In the 15 years since its opening, FWC has created similar centers across the state and built a network of 350 organizations that now offer FWC outdoor programs to more than 200,000 children and teens annually. Dick remains a principal supporter of the Florida Youth Conservation Centers Network.
It’s currently an uphill struggle. The average child now spends 53 hours a week with electronic media. Nature is no longer just outside the back door for many children. Hunting has also fallen off, hurt by the loss of small farms and open lands where many people used to hunt and the lack of mentors from whom to learn hunting, as Dick’s father was for him. This presents challenges for keeping populations of species like deer in balance. Federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing gear also fund the great majority of wildlife conservation and management programs across the country. As these activities decline, so do the revenues for protecting and stewarding the country’s finest natural lands.
But Dick sees reasons for hope. The increasingly sedentary lifestyle of U. S. children is now widely recognized as a national problem. A wide variety of organizations, including Ducks Unlimited, are redoubling efforts to get more families and children out of doors. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife have influenced many millennials by becoming hunters, drawn to it by the direct connection and responsibility for the food on their table. The Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida itself is the state’s largest private funder of youth outdoor programs, thanks to people like Dick.
This is Dick’s passion and also, he hopes, his legacy. “We don’t want to lose the opportunity with this generation of young people. We need to turn the light switch on early. Let’s get kids outside to enjoy the beauty. Then maybe they take up fishing, and finally become interested in hunting or archery, which is very popular right now. But we have to get them out in nature.”