A Volunteer Ethic as Big as Texas
By PJ Delhomme
At 73 years old, Mike Cramer is a force in the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance. His devotion to USA and conservation for the betterment of future generations is as big as where he hangs his hat in Texas.
Even though Mike Cramer grew up in the 1950s, before computers, video games, and cell phones, he didn’t spend much time outdoors. His parents divorced when he was just six, and he didn’t have anyone to show him the wonders of fishing, hunting, or spending time in the woods. Frankly, he was too busy helping put food on the family’s table.
As a boy, he delivered newspapers in the morning and evening to help support his single mom. As the oldest of three, he helped raise his brother and sister. At 16, he was on his own working at a gas station and as a “carny” when the fair came to town. He sold Ohio State Football banners, horns, bobbleheads, and trinkets at Saturday games. “It sounds meager, but I made enough to get me through high school,” he says.
That all changed in 1970 when he moved from Ohio to Texas.
“I became an avid outdoors person immediately, and I’ve been trying to catch up for lost time ever since,” Cramer says. He hunts with a pistol, rifle, and, when his arthritic shoulder allows, a handmade longbow with cedar-shaft arrows.
Cramer isn’t an outdoor lover who takes his time in the field for granted. He volunteers as much time on USA conservation projects as he spends hunting, fishing, and exploring. For more than a decade from his home base in Houston, he has volunteered time on dozens of USA projects around the country—from building portable, handicap-accessible ground blinds, fishing piers, and bayou boardwalks to organizing dinners and fishing events.
Cramer first became involved in the USA when Walt Ingram, USA’s executive director & CEO, reached out to him over a decade ago. Cramer was serving as Financial Secretary-Treasurer of UA Plumbers Local 68 when he got a call from Ingram.
“We had dinner in Houston, and he asked about putting some dinners together,” Cramer says. “He asked me to take charge, and I put our first dinner together. I’ve never missed a year yet.”
From there, Cramer couldn’t be contained. He chaired every Texas Gulf Coast dinner, volunteered and recruited other volunteers for the UA Ann Arbor dinner, and served as auctioneer at the Houston and Dallas dinners. He rolled up his sleeves and got his hands dirty volunteering and leading multiple Work Boots on the Ground projects, including a massive project at the Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Liberty, Texas, where 63 volunteers donated more than 900 hours to build over 750 feet of boardwalk through cypress swamps to provide public access to the local trail system.
“Trinity River is by far the biggest accomplishment in my volunteer life,” Cramer says. “Honestly, I didn’t think we could pull it off. It sounded like a massive project, and it was. But we did it.”
“He’s a natural leader, and you can just tell that everyone respects him,” says Laurie Gonzales, a wildlife biologist at Trinity River NWR.
“When I think of Mike Cramer, it’s an energy. And it’s amazing because he points all that energy right at the USA,” says USA Events Manager Chris Piltz. “The people that he meets at USA events support the union and the USA even more after they speak to Mike, and that’s what he’s all about. He spreads that passion and love that he has for the USA to those around him.”
In 2016, Cramer was awarded USA’s Volunteer of the Year award. That same year, he participated in an elk hunt on Brotherhood Outdoors. He hunted around Craig, Colorado, in the same area where he got lost for three days hunting elk in 1989. He didn’t kill an elk either time, but that’s okay with him.
“To harvest a game animal is always secondary to the total outdoor experience,” he says. “It’s hard to beat a beautiful sunrise or sunset, and I have witnessed many.”
Devotion to the Future
Cramer entered the trades after moving to Houston when he was 20. He worked at the docks unloading ships, where the temperatures soared to 120 degrees below deck in the cargo holds. After a few months, he worked for a non-union plumbing company digging ditches and manning a jackhammer all day.
“As I watched the plumbers installing piping in the ditches I was preparing. I decided that plumbers’ work and pay was my goal,” he says.
He applied and was accepted into the UA’s apprenticeship program. “I realized this was my opportunity in life and decided I would be the best I could be.”
He excelled in apprenticeship school and was a foreman even before becoming a journeyman plumber. After three years, he became an apprentice instructor and soon became a project manager. When work slowed down in the 1980s, his employer was leaving the union, and Cramer turned down a lucrative offer to stay. Instead, he worked for an engineering firm and remained a union member, continuing to teach until 1995. That’s when he ran for Financial Secretary-Treasurer of UA Plumbers Local 68 and won.
Shortly after, Cramer organized a fishing tournament for family, friends, and members of UA Plumbers Local 68. That tournament is still held today. Every year, each young person receives a fishing rod and reel at the weigh-in, whether they were part of the tournament or not.
“I have always wanted to help people, to mentor young people,” Cramer says. Volunteering with the USA combines conservation, the trades, and time spent outdoors. “It checks all the boxes because if we don’t keep our youth interested in the outdoors, there might be a time when there is no hunting or hiking and fishing. And that would just be a terrible thing.” Terrible indeed.