When I attended my first Texoma Ducks Unlimited fundraising dinner back in the 1980s, I was the stereotypical poor college kid trying to make ends meet as I worked my way towards a diploma from the University of North Texas.

With very few George Washington’s in my back pocket, the costs of being a college student, keeping a few gallons of gas in my truck, and dog food in the belly of my Labrador retriever Smokey meant that my wallet usually stayed on the thin side.

Nevertheless, I was a budding waterfowl hunting enthusiast, thrilled by the whisper of wings overhead on a chilly autumn morning. And discouraged by the drought in the Duck Factory of southern Canada and the northern U.S., a Dust Bowl recurrence that dried up wetlands and sent duck season lengths and bag limits plummeting.

When I heard about the local Ducks Unlimited fundraising dinner one autumn, I resolved to do what I could to help keep the ducks flying, scrounged a few dollars together, and bought a ticket.

Truthfully, I didn’t really know what to expect. But what I found was much more passionate and far bigger than I anticipated. After humble beginnings in the Municipal Ballroom across from Sherman’s Bearcat Stadium, the local DU event had grown so large by 1987 — the organization’s 50th anniversary year, by the way — that only an empty hangar at the local airport could contain the crowd of nearly 500 people.

When the chilly night of the banquet arrived, I drove to Grayson County Airport, found one of the few parking spots available, and went in. Hardly knowing a soul in that sea of humanity, I sat down, ate the BBQ dinner and spent what little I could.

More than three decades later, I’m still doing the same thing, these days as a middle-aged dad with my two duck hunting sons now in college themselves. Lord willing next week, the plan is to once again be at the Texoma DU dinner, doing what I can to help keep the ducks flying.

Hopefully, you will be too.

If so, expect to see one noticeable difference at next week’s annual DU gathering — a change of address. The 44th annual Texoma Ducks Unlimited dinner will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 15th, from 6-10 p.m. at Denison’s Hilton Garden Inn Ballroom, directly across Hwy. 75 from Texoma Medical Center.

The price to get into this year’s Texoma DU dinner is $60 for adults; $30 for youth (Greenwings, 17 years of age and under); and by way of three sponsorship levels ($300, $750; and $1,500). By the way, at the door next Tuesday evening, ticket prices will go up $10.

As usual, expect a big night of conservation fundraising according to current Texoma DU chairman Kris Spiegel. That’s easy to anticipate on the heels of last year’s Texas-sized dinner, a smashing success by almost any measure.

“Our net dollars raised for 2018 was $137,000,” said Spiegel, a Denison businessman and city council member. “And our attendance was just under 500 people.”

Added together, such numbers netted the Texoma DU chapter several awards and plenty of statewide and national recognition.

“We won the Northeast Texas Chapter of the Year, for the second year in a row,” said Spiegel. “We also made ‘Top 10” in Texas. And we were in the ‘Top 50’ nationally, and we were awarded a President’s Elite Award.”

That last award is significant since it is reserved for DU’s top volunteer chapters across the nation. According to a DU news release, the President’s Elite Award designation is reserved for chapters that raise between $100,000 and $249,999 in grassroots income for DU’s ongoing mission of wetland habitat and wildlife conservation.

Out of the 110 DU chapters recognized nationally with the President’s Elite Award, the Texoma chapter checked in at number 39 overall and number seven in Texas.

The top Texas chapters receiving the prestigious award were Ellis County/Waxahachie (#3), Midland (#7), Corpus Christi (#15), Aggieland/College Station (#16), Austin (#19), Rockport (#35), and Texoma (#39). In all, there were 16 chapters across Texas that were recognized with the award.

When I asked Spiegel (and Jim Lillis, one of the chapter’s original founders as well as a longtime regional director with DU) about how much money the Texoma chapter has raised down through the years, neither man had the exact figure, but both said it was significant.

“I’d guess it should be between $2 and $3 million,” said Spiegel. “I do believe that we’ll be close to $1 million raised in the last 10 years.”

With plenty of success behind them, the local chapter now turns its sights towards next week’s fundraiser. And despite the shift in location, the expectations remain high.

“Our committee is really excited and optimistic about the success of this 44th banquet,” said Spiegel.

With the usual array of wildlife and sporting art prints, waterfowl decoy carvings, DU collectibles, hunting and fishing gear, and other merchandise, there’s plenty of incentive to attend the 2019 dinner.

According to Spiegel, the event’s live auction, silent auction, raffles, games and door prizes will bring chances at golf outings at Pebble Beach; hunting trips to Argentina, Africa, and the Dakotas for pheasants; and fishing trips on Lake Texoma.

There’s also more than 40 sporting firearms available — pending successful background checks, of course — from such makers as Benelli, Browning, Sig Sauer and Ruger.

“We are also featuring a huge Browning 49-gun safe that will have a high quality, mystery gun inside of it,” said Spiegel. “That is underwritten by Classic of Texoma and I am really excited about (that one).”

He’s also excited over the high quality of goods being offered this year, one of the best banquet lineups in the group’s 44 years of existence.

“This is a year that is highlighting the fact that success breeds success,” said Spiegel.

Add up the local committee’s hard work, the efforts of regional director Dillon Schroeder (recently recognized as the top Ducks Unlimited RD in the nation), support from DU at the state and national level, and the enthusiastic attendance of hundreds of Texoma residents, and it all equals Texas-big fundraising success.

“It’s an exciting time for the Texoma area, specially for Grayson County,” said Spiegel. “We are proud to be here representing Ducks Unlimited and our ongoing commitment to conservation.”

Meaning simply, that once again next week, a bunch of enthusiastic local quacker backers will get together, all rolling up their sleeves to do what they can to help keep the ducks flying.

Even if they’re a poor college student with more passion in their heart than dollar bills in their back pocket.

For information on the 44th Texoma DU dinner, visit www.ducks.org/texas/events or call chairman Kris Spiegel at 903-820-8882 or past chairman Eric Kloppers at 903-815-2229.