Harry M. “Butch” Richenback was called many things during his lifetime, and at least 90 percent of them are fit to print.
“Temperamental”and “perfectionist” for starters. Richenback was the kind of guy who wouldn’t hesitate to run one of his gleaming Rich-N-Tone calls through a band saw rather than let it leave his shop should he deem it less than perfect.
“Tough” is another apt label. He was a Marine whose most dependable piece of call-making technology was his left index finger which had had the tip sliced off five times leaving a nub that was his most reliable measuring device.
“Cussed”? Well, let’s just say he was once called “the a**hole of duck call-makers,” a title he assigned to himself.
The fact is, the Richenback lexicon was chock-full of colorful and often contradictory labels, just like the man himself. A Richenback bad mood commanded a wide berth, but when faced with a person in need, he’d turn from cantankerous to caring on a dime. For all of his growl and gristle, underneath beat a heart of gold.
“I was taught when I was young that you don’t help people just to get something,” he once said. “It’s just that you’re supposed to help others.”
In this mindset, Richenback contributed to the well-being of his Stuttgart community, both as a corporate citizen and public servant. He sat on the City Council for eight years and served as mayor from 1994 to 2006. The company he founded in 1976, Rich-N-Tone Duck Calls, helped put Stuttgart on the duck hunting map, providing jobs and economic growth as it drew loyal customers from around the world to the Grand Prairie.
Richenback’s greatest civic contribution, though, was the many years spent in service to local youth. Although he never had children of his own, he earned the title “father figure” from those in whom he invested his time and talent to mentor, coach and befriend. For 25 years, he served as director of the Stuttgart Youth Center and volunteer coached local youth baseball and football teams.
Many youngsters got turned on to duck calling and hunting through his annual Youth Duck Calling Clinic which he established in 1969. Over four weeks, he’d give 40 or 50, seven to 13-year-olds something to practice and be proud of, culminating with a skills demonstration during the World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest every November.
“I’ve just got a soft spot for kids,” he said. “You want to help? You want a drug-free community? Then get involved with kids. Do something for them.”
Richenback’s own childhood was irrevocably shaped by Chick Major, a local duck call legend in his own right. At age 8, Richenback found his way into Major’s Dixie Mallard duck call shop and, for all intents and purposes, never left.
“I went everywhere he went,” Richenback said. “People thought I was his son.”
If Major didn’t know that he had a protégé on his hands when he taught Richenback to blow a duck call for the first time, it didn’t take long to figure out. Just three years after he showed up at the shop, the 11-year-old Richenback won the 1957 Junior World Champion Duck Caller competition. He used a Dixie Mallard call to win the Arkansas State Championship and World’s Championship in 1972; in 1975, he took home the coveted Champion of Champions title.
By then, Richenback was already schooled in the craft of making calls, again thanks to Major. But he never entertained turning it into a business to compete with his mentor, as doing so would be the ultimate sign of disrespect. In 1976, a year after Major’s death, all of that changed. Richenback bought a lathe and produced the first of what he envisioned as the only call a duck hunter would ever need. Richenback saw the call so clearly in his head, he made the first one without use of a jig.
The Rich-N-Tone call didn’t look or sound like anything on the market. Featuring a lip modeled after a Coke bottle and a mylar reed instead of rubber, it was a call known to produce every note on the scale. This made it equally indispensable for both the rice field hunter and the timber hunter. He also made it smaller than competitor’s calls, to better fit into a hunter’s shirt pocket.
The competition chuckled at the device but Richenback got the last laugh, landing in Mack’s Sport Shop in Stuttgart where his calls took off. Today, Rich-N-Tone is in the elite tier of hand-crafted calls and Rickenback is considered the most skilled and visionary call maker in modern times.
World Champion and Champion of Champions caller Buck Gardner said it best, “Butch was born to make duck calls.”
Inducted into both the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame and the Legends Outdoors Hall of Fame in 2005, Richenback received the Jerry Jones Sportsman Award in 2012. He sold the company to John Stephens in 1999, but stayed on staff, recorded a series of duck calling instructional DVDs, held clinics and imparted nuggets of wisdom wherever he went. Right up to his death June 29, 2015, he maintained a call was only as good as the hunter who used it.
“If you put it on a shelf, it won’t call a duck for you,” he once said. “You still have to know how to use it, know when to call and when not to.”