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Turtleman, cast of show host live donation drive

Jan. 12, 2014 @ 11:00 PM

HUNTINGTON -- When a teacher asked Grant Burrows recently who he would most like to meet in this whole wide world, he quickly came up with only one answer: Turtleman.

When a bird flew in his house the other day, Burrows was wishing again that the Turtleman could appear.

On Sunday, Burrows got his wish, as he and his mom Vicki were some of the more than 4,500 other fans of the hit Animal Planet TV show, "Call of the Wildman," who came out to the Big Sandy Superstore Arena Sunday afternoon for a live donation drive event starring the Lebanon, Ky.-based outdoorsman, Ernie Brown, Jr. -- known as "Turtleman" -- and his fellow cast members.

Co-sponsored by Wirt County Office of Emergency Services, the drive had fans do a meet-and-greet with the show's stars in exchange for donations for folks affected by the recent chemical spill that has impacted more than 300,000 people in nine counties in central West Virginia.

By 12:30 p.m., fans had begun lining up for the 2 p.m. start. By 1:30 p.m., the crowd line snaked a full block, making a "U" through the Soupy Sales Plaza and continuing a block over to Veterans Memorial Boulevard.

By 3:30 p.m., Specialists Donald Queen and Steve Hofmeister with unit 1257 of the West Virginia National Guard had nearly filled a 5-ton truck with such supplies as bottled water, paper products and utensils, baby wipes and other needed items for folks who've been days without usable water.

By 3:45 p.m., they'd called for backup -- another truck to come to the Arena -- as more than 20 volunteers from Huntington High School's sports teams wheeled in and carried over donations from the gathered fans.

By 6 p.m., the drive had filled three, 5-ton National Guard trucks with donations.

After handing over their donations, fans waited to go into the Arena lobby, where Brown, his banjo-playing buddy, Neal James, and other cast members signed autographs, gave hugs and thanked folks for helping out.

And some of the fans did some giving of their own back to the Turtleman.

Jaxson Stephens, 5, handed over a forked stick that he had been whittling on for a month with a butterknife, to help Turtleman catch snakes.

Like many families in the area, the Eric and Jessica Stephens family of Greenup, Ky., have been fans of the show from the beginning.

Even though Eric had to work the late shift Saturday night, they piled the kids (Max, 3, Jaxson, 5, and Joseph, 10) in the car Sunday to come and meet one of their heroes.

"We've been big-time 'Turtleman' fans since the beginning and I just hate seeing these people without water," Eric Stephens said. "So we thought it was a good opportunity to see him and to help out."

As usual, Brown had an interesting story as to how he heard the news about the chemical spill.

Brown said he had been underneath a local eye doctor's house in Lebanon, Ky., catching three cats with his dog, Lolly.

After herding the cats, he came inside and saw the devastating scrolling news out of West Virginia at the doctor's office and knew he had to help.

Brown, who was actually discovered by Animal Planet after a performance at the Mothman Festival in Point Pleasant, W.Va., said when he heard the news he just began gathering water as fast as he could.

After his office manager, Neal James, called Bo Wriskin at 11 p.m. and got the ball rolling to set up a collection site in West Virginia, Brown spent the next two days gathering supplies.

Like the show itself, the donation journey has been a live action adventure.

Their truck loaded with water was in an accident in Danville, Ky., (just east of their home of Lebanon) and fans stopped their cars and helped them pick up bottles of water to help get them back on the road.

That full pickup truck of water got handed out Saturday night at The Hampton Inn in Huntington, where the guys were staying.

"We pulled in and the people were like what are you going to do with the water," James said. "They were all displaced at the hotel and so we threw a Hillbilly, Kentucky/West Virginia party right there in the lobby."

Brown, whose TV show is now in its fourth season, said after he quit his job in 2006 to take his Turtleman show to festivals, that West Virginia was always good to him and helped launch his TV show.

"I always did a show for the Mothman Festival, three years in a row, and I went down there that third year and Animal Planet saw me do the show and three days later we had our (TV) show," Brown said. "That first show was March 11, 2010, and it's now going on its fourth season. I quit my job in 2006 to do it and we have been poor as dirt, collecting cans from one party to try and get to the next festivity."

Brown said he knew that he had to help out and do something.

"Since I have been a little kid we never had running water and that is still the way it is today, so I know what it is like now to have no water to drink," said Brown. "I collect rainwater for washing but for drinking water, I have to go over to my mom's. When I seen these people in trouble and in need, I knew I had to help. I know what it's like."

Brown said he is thankful that he gets to do what he loves (he's caught more than 12,000 snapping turtles in his life) and has connected with so many fans and friends of the show.

"We always do it the way we want to do it normally," he said about filming his TV show. "It's crazy, but not drinking and doing drugs crazy. We catch the animals, no faking, and all live action. I guess that is what people love about us. We are just us being us, we say our prayers. I always wanted to be a superhero, but fame and fortune I ignore; action in a turtle pond is my reward."

Although not surprised at all by the turnout, Big Sandy Superstore Arena general manager, Brian Sipe, said they were more than happy to open the Arena for the unique community event at a moment's notice.

"We are a city-owned public facility and we draw people from those areas to our events all throughout the year, and so in reality it is a no-brainer for us," Sipe said. "It's nice that we are able, through the city and the mayor's office, to work with the folks from Wirt County and the National Guard to make it happen."

Like Turtleman himself, some of the volunteers such as Christina Haymaker, who helped organize the Huntington High School volunteers, really made an effort to be there.

She and her family had been at Snowshoe Mountain on Saturday, and got up extra early to make the trip back in time to volunteer.

Haymaker, whose daughter is on the softball team, said the event did her heart good. Teams in the areas affected by the spill may be rivals to HHS but that is just on the field; off the field, it's everyone together.

"The thing I love about this is that (Brown) is really taking his time with everyone and making it special and I just think it's great that he is using his celebrity for this, and the kids that are here are also getting that good feeling of helping others in need."

You can find out more about Turtleman online at www.turtlemanliveaction.com

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