Frank “The Ramrod” Plewa

Frank Plewa is the outgoing President of NAHRA.  Many of you know him as Frank, some of you know him by his nick name “The Ramrod”, others know him as “Swampcop”.  I know him by all names plus the fourth name I am proud to say, “Friend”.  Frank served two plus terms as President and came on board when NAHRA was really struggling.  With his leadership, NAHRA has come a long ways since then. Read his story now!

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Frank was born in Altoona, PA and raised in the little coal town of Lilly located about 2 hours east of Pittsburgh.  He was the third child in a pack of nine, there were 3 boys and 6 girls.  Due to circumstances that would take too long to explain, Frank and his youngest brother, Mark, were raised together by their adopted parents, whom Frank will be forever grateful for.  Frank’s parents were very strict so young Frank was forced to be on his own a lot and never had a lot of friends until grade school.  Where Frank grew up there were not many kids his age to run with, so socialization was mainly through school and his love of sports.  However, college thoroughly changed Frank from a very shy person into the party animal that most of us transition through.  The initial breaking out of the nest nearly flunked him out of college, but thankfully self-preservation kicked in, and he eventually grew up.  Frank’s first love of sports was baseball by far, which he played some version of until his late twenties, until marriage and a career made him an adult.  Fishing and hunting were always another form of entertainment for him especially during his high school years.

 

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Frank received a B.S. degree in General Agriculture from Penn State in 1981.  The degree in agriculture is a bit misleading as Frank focused mainly on the wildlife biological sciences, a path that was not initially apparent to him.  For a number of years Frank bounced from seasonal fisheries and wildlife management jobs with the state and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services until he discovered his true calling with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  Since 1987, Frank has been in the Corp’s wetland program doing mainly enforcement work.  Thus, the “Swampcop” was born and he has thoroughly enjoyed the ride ever since.  Problem solving, environmental and related social issues were quite rewarding to him and certainly cured any remaining shyness!

Valerie, Frank’s wife, grew up in the same little town as Frank but they did not get together until she started college also at PSU.  Frank was four years older than Val so he had to wait until she was legal to date.  They got together on Val’s 18th birthday (he told us he had to wait).  Their courtship was a little difficult as Frank was either not working or bouncing from part time job to part time job.  Val was patient with the broke Polock, and much of their spooning was just spending time together, but they also spent a lot of time at family events.  Both of them came from large families so that ensured many, many weekend events.  Being that they came from Irish, Polish, Slavic and Italian decent they did not need a lot of reasons or encouragement to party! Frank said that he thought their bond grew stronger because they did not have much but each other for a while.  Through everything, Val is and has been the most stable thing in Frank’s life, he loves her dearly and always will.  It must have been true love as Frank and Val will celebrate 30 years of marriage in October and have been together for 36 years!

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Frank’s involvement with dogs went back as far as he could remember.  They always had dogs for hunting, mainly Beagles.  In high school Frank started to hang around with a neighbor who bought and sold Beagles and Coon Hounds.  He spent many a night with that old man learning how to hunt and persevere with dogs.  It wasn’t until Frank was in his thirties that he discovered retrievers and it was quite by chance.  He wanted a big dog and fortunately, the litter of Danes he had heard about were all sold.  The next litter they heard about was a litter of Labradors.  They purchased a little ball of fur that they named Shenah and the rest is history.

Frank did not have a true mentor although he did consult others who were successful.  Initially, other than a friend who introduced him to Labradors, there were no other trainers around for him to consult or train with.  There were those that he admired as handlers while attending tests and while failing miserably at first, he might add.  Tom Stazierowski, Joe Letta, Jack Jagoda, Brian Jones, Randy Buettner and a few others that he probably has forgotten had what he wanted, complete dogs.  The guy that probably influenced him the most was a fellow named Bob Costa from Maryland who was the founder of the Patuxent River Retriever Club (a NAHRA club that disappeared long ago).  Bob allowed Frank to come down and train with his group probably because he hounded him at every test.  Bob encouraged Frank to start his own club due to the amount of travel involved with coming to train with Bob’s group, not because what some of you might think, that Frank was a big pain.  Bob was very helpful in getting Frank started and with the help of six others, The Northern Piedmont Retriever club was born.  To this day Frank is still an active member of this club.

When asked how he got Val involved with dog training, Frank said, “Very simple, she made the decision that if she wanted to see much of me, she needed to go along training.  That worked well with the first two dogs and then, another and another turned a couple hours of training into half a day or more.  Regardless of the level of participation, she has always been my biggest supporter and always there whatever the outcome.  Heck, she has even become one of the best judges in our program in spite of me!”

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Being a follower is not in Frank’s DNA so he never adopted an established training program, but instead adapted a lot of ideas into his own style.  Not knowing about force fetch and too cash poor to afford an e-collar helped develop a very different style of training in many people’s eyes, the “Amish” training style.  And in Frank’s case, at least at first, probably the strongest order of Amish.  Sure, he read everything that he could find, but he needed more help as we all come to recognize in our early training days.  He did do a lot of watching and listening to those who would talk with him and added to what others have described as a healthy understanding of dog behavior.  Frank also had a huge desire to be successful, second place or doing half a job is not in his nature.  Regardless of the excuses Frank may make for himself, not passing a test has always rubbed him the wrong way.

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When asked why choose NAHRA over the other hunt test games available, Frank said that he did start with AKC and did well at the lower stakes but a friend took him to Virginia to a NAHRA test in the early 1990’s where it didn’t take him long to see that NAHRA would become his first love in the dog games.  At the time Frank had started to do some waterfowl guiding and decided that the program that could help him build the best dog was NAHRA.  Field Trials interested him, he felt that his competitive nature would take the fun out of training and be hard on the dogs so he steered away from it.  Frank enjoyed the National Field Retriever Association (NFRA) testing during it short existence and even got his club involved hosting tests at a time that coincided with serious problems in NAHRA.  Fearing that NAHRA was dying he decided to get involved and joined the NAHRA BOD which gave him a revised focus. NFRA eventually dissolved.

On remembering his first time that he went to the line with a dog Frank said “I was as nervous as anyone else ever asked this question”.  It was with his first Labrador, Shenah, who drug him to the line at an AKC test.  Frank was not sure what he heard or saw except when the bird hit the ground and he yelled fetch, it was a bit premature on his part.  Frank and his dog excused themselves with the encouragement of the judges to watch the rest of the dogs perform that day.

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Frank’s involvement started with the above mentioned friend that took him to the Aylett Retriever Club NAHRA Field Test in northern Virginia in 1992.  Frank ran both AKC and NAHRA for the remainder of the year and then went strictly to NAHRA after that except for a short return to AKC Master events.  Frank never developed a rapport with the AKC crowd and felt much more at home with his NAHRA friends. Frank never finished the Master level for a title.  He felt that retriever training and testing was about building a good dog, not who could get through a meat grinder.

When Frank was asked what test or event stands out in your mind the most and why?  Frank answered “A test that is probably the one that changed my fate in this game.  It was a bad experience at the time but one that fueled my competitive juices to be a better handler.  I failed that test and those that know me understand that failure is not an easy pill for me to swallow.  It was my first exposure to a poison bird blind, a necessary skill for a dog and handler to master but I was as unprepared as my dog.  I was so mad I wrote a letter to Jack Jagoda, NAHRA President at the time, and received a response that angered me even more but in time I realized that I had to get smarter to get better and ultimately, I needed to be prepared.  Jack very discreetly explained that this is a necessary tool for the hunter and dog and I must be prepared for these types of situations”.

As a judge Frank feels that any time a handler asks him for advice is an honor, but there is definitely one moment that stands out for him.  That was handing an older man his first and only Senior ribbon many years ago.  This man was an enthusiastic NAHRA supporter but failed every test he entered.  He explained that he trained alone, which were shoes Frank once walked in, so he tried to help.  Frank talked with the gentleman after many tests about what he could do to get over the hump.  Frank saw him improve in several area but he would fail again and again, many times while Frank was judging.  However one weekend he and his dog did the best job Frank had ever seen them do as a team but were several points short.  Frank must confess that this was the one and only time that he passed a dog that was that many points short but it was the effort and perseverance of both that made him think he should pass them.  Frank thought that he would have to strong-arm his co-judge if necessary but he was on the same page as Frank and they passed the team despite some criticism from others.  Frank guess that they did it mostly as a reward for working hard and being such a faithful supporter of our program.  The tears in the man’s eyes as he accepted that ribbon told Frank that maybe the founders would forgive him.  Frank doesn’t remember seeing him after that but it was a long time ago.

The advice that Frank would give new handlers is to be prepared for anything!  Find a good mentor and hold on to them.  Pay attention to the small things that you can correct and the big things become easier.  He also suggests to become a judge as soon as you can.  Some of his most meaningful and enlightening times came as a judge.  You see everything you should and should not do, especially those little things.

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GMHRCH-1 MFR Fowl Weather’s Token Trouble was Frank’s once in a lifetime dog.  He was a machine that was all business in the games and especially in the field.  Trouble was the dog that validated Frank’s training style with his accomplishments and then produced a lot of fine offspring.  Trouble was Frank’s first 1,000 point dog and produced numerous other dogs that have attained the same or higher accomplishments.  He was the backbone of Frank’s hunting business for many years.

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Frank did not choose to run for President of NAHRA but became the President by default.  The current President at the time resigned leaving him the job, in no way did Frank have a desire to be President.  Frank seriously considered asking the BOD to find someone else as he wasn’t sure he could do the job, but it was apparent no one else would step up so he thought he needed to do it, at least in the short term.  He told himself that all he needed to do is keep NAHRA going for a year until the next election where a better person could be identified.  It became quickly apparent that the NAHRA Frank so much loved was in deep trouble especially financially so there was no way that he could quit after the first year. He had the energy, but he thought not necessarily the smarts to do this job, so he knew that he needed to bring people on board immediately to try and stop the bleeding.  Despite attempts by past leaders to question his choices and direction, the right people came to the BOD and things started to settle down and they developed a path forward.  Frank gave himself the nick name of the “Ramrod”.  It was a self imposed name from hunting trips that he had been on.  Hunting trips can be chaotic if no one is in charge and so they always elected a “Ramrod” to take control of the trip.  In life and in dogs, there are many followers but there must be a single leader or you have chaos!

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This was a critical time for NAHRA, things were going south quickly and Frank enjoyed the game so much that he could not sit back and let it die.  A couple of years earlier people tried to change NAHRA into something else which caused Frank to jump ship.  Frank in his own words said, “I have a big mouth at times and my resistance to the proposed changes created a lot of friction leading to my making enemies of former friends but it did not matter to me, I was not going to continue if NAHRA changed to something other than what attracted me in the first place.  I did not care if we would lose potential members that did not care to hold dead ducks, a path we were heading towards.  I wanted this to be what the founders saw, the chance for the average hunter to produce a quality gun dog.  In any case, I took the job and was reelected twice”.

The biggest challenge as President for Frank was overcoming inherited debt.  Anyone knows it is hard to fight back with one arm tied behind your back.  Fortunately Frank was able to surround himself with good people who are not afraid to make necessary changes and cuts to get things right.  The financial problems had other effects that often cripple an organization as well.  It is hard to implement initiatives and good ideas to get into the black when you are almost penniless. Frank gives credit to his fellow BOD for doing a great job setting the table for us to get back and eventually prosper.  There is now a platform in place for NAHRA to grow but, it will be up to all of us as members to make the fruit.  Frank doesn’t take credit for the financial turnaround except for getting the right people in place to make it happen.

The Hunter stake is Frank’s most treasured accomplishment.  The Hunter stake was met with a lot of opposition at first, but now has become a much needed stepping stone to the higher stakes that was sorely lacking in NAHRA.  Frank believes that the Upland Retriever Program, even though it is in the early stages, can also have the same success.

As for NAHRA’s. future Frank said “I think we realized that NAHRA should change in some ways to become more diversified in what we do but without losing our identity.  We added the Hunter Testing level and the Upland Retriever Program which allows for added participation without changing the program that the founders intended, at least in my interpretation.  These initiatives support our mandate of producing some of the finest hunting retrievers in the world”.

Frank has no regrets now that his term is done.  He said that it is time for him to step down as this organization needs a new driver with the energy and ideas to continue the recovery and growth.  His biggest fear was that he would stay too long and things would get stale.  Now that he has his life back he plans to spend more time with his beautiful wife and his dogs, both of which, at times have taken the back seat to the President position.  His career as a wetlands biologist is winding down and he has assumed more of a teaching role to hand it off so to speak to the next generation.

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Frank’s other passion is spent chasing pheasant, ducks, and Canada Geese.  When Frank figured out that he could only eat so many birds but he wanted as many retrieves for his dogs as he could get, he started Fowl Weather Guiding Services.  Guiding became the answer as his pack grew or maybe it was the reason that his pack grew.  Frank lives off the flyway so most of his efforts are for geese but several hunting trips a year are not out of the question for him.  He did admit that he is not bashful about an opportunity to pursue something else.  He still spends hours in a tree (deer hunting), looking at the empty woods, but every once in a while Mr. Darwin’s theory rewards him.

Describing a perfect day Frank said that in life, it would be waking up knowing that his family and friends, which would include the dogs, are whole and healthy.  In a perfect training day it would be a sunny day with a trailer full of 4-12 month old pups eager to work and please and enough energy  to take all of his.  A perfect day in hunting world would be a overcast day in the thirties with a 10-15 mph breeze and a few flurries.  A perfect day in NAHRA would be that he did what he could to keep NAHRA the greatest testing program for the hunter.

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Now that retirement is closer and things have settled down, I asked Frank if he could live anywhere in the world, where would he live?  The answer was simple “My roots are so deep in Pennsylvania that I do not believe I could go anywhere else now.  In a perfect world for a younger man, I would keep an address on the Olympic Peninsula but live and work with the ducks up and down the Mississippi and in the Chesapeake”.

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The one thing about Frank that most people would never guess is that the first six months of his life were spent in an orphanage until he was adopted back into the family by his great Aunt and Uncle.  It was the greatest gift that he has ever been given and it was a real game changer.  Without them, Frank has seen what the alternative can be and he has always been grateful to be given the life he has.