A man known throughout Banks County for his love of the outdoors and educating youth on fishing and hunting was remembered Sept. 4 as the classroom at Wilson Shoals Shooting Range was named in his honor. A plaque recognizing him is placed on the door as you enter the classroom.
Winford Popphan, who died in 2013, was a retired game warden with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources who worked in Banks County for years. He also served 20 years in the U.S. Army, including serving during the Vietnam Conflict.
Family, friends, game wardens and former Gov. Nathan Deal were among those who spoke at the classroom dedication. Popphan’s wife, Elaine, and two sons, Winford Jr. and Jamie, attended the event.
“We are here to celebrate the legacy that game warden Winford Popphan Sr. left for us,” Terry West, deputy commissioner, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said. “Winford was a dear friend to a lot of us here. If you knew Winford Popphan you knew that wildlife education and helping people learn more about the outdoors was very, very dear to him. It’s how he carried himself as a ranger. He was also more concerned with the person he was dealing with instead of just the law. It is fitting that we are here to dedicate this classroom to him.”
LESSONS FROM POPPHAN
Stan Elrod, who is with the DNR law enforcement division, spoke on coming to North Georgia in 1992 as an intern and working with Popphan. He recalled that Popphan pulled over while they were driving on that first day together, pointed to a mud hole and said “read the mud hole to me.” He said that lesson has stayed with him over the years as Popphan pointed out that he should be able to look at the tracks, determine which vehicle came in and left and gather other information.
“Winford took that mud hole and used it as a teaching lesson and I remember it from 1992,” he said. “That story sticks in my mind when I think about Winford and him telling me to read that mud hole. I could tell Winford was interested in me and my success. Winford was a teacher. He had something to tell me every day about this game warden lifestyle I was interested in.”
He also spoke on Popphan’s work to enforce environmental laws.
“He was the strongest enforcer of environmental laws,” he said. “He placed a lot of emphasis on clean air and water in our communities for our families. He placed a lot of emphasis on that.”
Elrod spoke on the many years he relied on Popphan over the years and learned from him. He also recalled the fishing rodeo and hunter safety classes Popphan organized for youth in the area, as well as how he continued to “network” with the other game wardens after he retired.
“After he retired, he refused to let the networking that he built over those years go,” he said. “Every third Sunday morning, retired game wardens and working game wardens met for a gravy biscuit networking opportunity. It was important for him to stay in contact with all those people he worked with.”
Command Sgt. Major Joe Nativdad spoke on the man he called “my best friend.” He shared stories of taking road trips with Popphan and how his friend wanted to stop for coffee. He laughed about how the coffee had to be exactly to Popphan’s liking, including being “fresh and hot.”
“We did a lot of traveling around together,” he said. “He was my best friend. Yesterday was his birthday, 76 years. I wish he was here.”
Calvin Stewart worked with Popphan as a fellow game warden and he shared some of his memories.
“I could stand here for two hours and talk about Winford,” he said. "He and I were number one working buddies back in the days when we roamed this area. Several words come to mind when I think of Winford. One is integreity. He believed in doing things right. He believed in treating people right. The Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When it came time to catch someone and write someone a citation, he knew the difference between when it was time to write someone a go to court ticket or a warning. He used the warning process liberally. If you could fix a problem by writing a citation, that is what Winford did. We need more officers like that everywhere, from the lowest police department to the highest.”
Stewart said “work ethic” also comes to mind when remembering Popphan.
“When I came over here, I would get here before day light and we would go out and start patrolling Banks County,” he said. “We would be working from before day light until after midnight many times. That was a game warden’s hours. When hunters were out hunting, that’s when we had to be there. I used to have to tell Winford Popphan, ‘Take me back to your house so I can get my truck and go home.’ He didn’t have enough sense to stop. He was dedicated to the bone to the mission of the Department of Natural Resources.”
Stewart said “loyal” is another word that reminds him of Popphan.
“When I needed Winford, there wasn’t any ands, ifs or buts,” he said. “He would be there. My wife and I had a wreck in White County. Our car was all torn up. I needed help to get home. I called Winford and he showed up immediately. No questions asked. He was the kind of man you could call any time of the day or night and he was going to be there for you.”
In closing, Stewart said that Winford was cremated and “a part of him is buried down this road (at the shooting range).”
“Every year on the date of Winford’s passing, we (he and Nativdad) bring Winford a cup of coffee,” he said. “It can’t be bought just anywhere. I has to be bought in a place Winford approved of.”
Stewart also spoke on Popphan’s military experience and the Bronze Star, Purple Star and Silver Star that he was awarded.
“Winford is a hero to me,” he said. “I miss him.”
The family was represented by son, Winford Lewis Popphan Jr., who spoke.
“I am honored to carry on my father’s name,” he said. “I want to thank all of you for coming out today. I cannot think of a greater honor for my father than this. This would have made him so happy. My father was proud to serve 20 years in the U.S. Army. I thought, at that point, that was the highlight of his life. But he loved the DNR. He loved every minute and part of it. He loved being in the woods. He was happiest I had ever seen him when he was doing this work. It was important work. His commitment to education was true. He told me, ‘take every opportunity to learn’ and both my brother and I did.”
FORMER GOV. DEAL SPEAKS
Former Gov. Deal said, “This is a special occasion and I’m going to tell you why I think it is. It is important for smaller communities to recognize when things such as this take place. It does give recognition to what is happening here. This is one of those very special occasions.”
Deal said that the community can be proud of the shooting range.
“Today’s ceremony is designed to emphasize the importance Winford put on young people and their training to make sure they knew how to handle guns and that they knew how to do so safely. That is what this facility is designed to do and it is a culmination of what his career represented in DNR.”
Banks County officials attending included: Becky Carlan, tax commissioner; Carlton Speed, sheriff; Alicia Andrews, Tina Queen and Judy McClure, chamber of commerce/CVB representatives; Mark Savage, coroner; Ivan Mote, magistrate judge; Chris Erwin, state representative; Jim Grier, Lula mayor; and Dennis Bergin, Lula city manager.