Nov. 22—Mark Fanning was just 10 years old when he started raising wild black birds, jays and crows. And when he came across a 1920 National Geographic article about falconry, his passion for the ancient sport really took hold.
By the time he was 13, Fanning was training his first hunting hawk. Over the next six decades, Fanning's life focused on falconry, teaching, his family and living off the land. A retired science teacher and master falconer, he was known for his expansive knowledge and leading the push to legalize falconry in Maine in the early 1970s, eagerly sharing his knowledge about the outdoors with his students and friends.
Fanning, 76, died Nov. 19 when the truck he and his wife were traveling in on Interstate 81 in Virginia was hit by a tractor-trailer. Cynthia Fanning, 58, was driving and is hospitalized with serious injuries, the family says. The couple were traveling home to Buxton from Texas, where they went each fall to visit friends and go hunting.
Fanning was known as "the godfather" of falconry in Maine, said Corey Hamilton, a friend and Fanning's former science student.
"Falconry was his life," he said. " He lived and breathed it."
Fanning's interest in insects and birds began in the 1950s and 1960s, he wrote last year in a short autobiography. He was living in Washington state when he trained his first western red-tailed hawk, named War Hatchet. He released the bird back to the wild when his family moved to the East Coast to be near the home port of the ship his father captained, according to his autobiography.
Fanning decided in 1968 to become a falconer. He gathered the equipment needed, a few National Geographic magazines and an early 19th-century English falconry book. Over the next few years, he sought out experts and others interested in the field and trapped and trained hawks and falcons.
In 1972, Fanning began advocating for the state Legislature to legalize falconry in Maine. The first bill making falconry a legal method to hunt small game in Maine became law on April 13, 1973. He later contributed to efforts to extend the falconry season for waterfowl and to develop state regulations. He also helped bring back the peregrine population in Maine.
Fanning held the first falconry license in the state, numbered 001.
He was a mentor to many involved in the sport in Maine and across the country, said Hamilton, who also is a master falconer. He took on a number of apprentices over the years, some of whom have gone on to teach the sport to others. Cindy Fanning also is an accomplished falconer.
One of Fanning's greatest accomplishments was bringing longwings, or falcons, to the salt marshes of Maine to hunt ducks, which had never been done.
"He was the one who got all that started," said Larry Barnes, who met Fanning through falconry. "Mark really perfected that. People would come up from other East Coast states to experience hunting ducks in the salt marsh."
In 2003, Fanning described his thoughts about the sport while hunting ducks with Blackstrap, his gyr falcon, near a marsh creek in Wells.
"This is about a passion for high adventure," Fanning told the Portland Press Herald. "It's a romantic adventure."
'A LOCAL LEGEND'
Hamilton said Fanning was a constant teacher, even while holding a falcon near the edge of a frozen salt marsh.
"People would stop and Mark always went into teaching mode, educating them on the sport and the birds," he said. "You could tell people were really engaged and interested in it. He was so knowledgeable about the sport."
Fanning taught science at Bonny Eagle middle and high schools for more than 30 years. While still teaching, he took night classes to become a nurse. He worked at a head trauma center in Kennebunk until a few years ago, according to his family.
Going to Fanning's class was a little like going to Hogwarts, the fictional boarding school from "Harry Potter," said former student Shauna Larrabee. Sometimes he would bring in a falcon or owl. He often brought his students outside for activities and handed out butterfly awards to students who applied themselves in class.
"He's a local legend," said Larrabee, who still has the two butterfly awards Fanning gave her.
Hamilton first met Fanning in his seventh-grade science class, then had him again when Fanning transferred to the high school. Fanning had a special way of connecting with every student, especially those who were struggling, he said.
"He always made sure that every kid got the kind of teaching they needed," Hamilton said. "He was always interested in making sure everyone succeeded."
Samantha Stoddard, Mark and Cindy Fanning's niece, said everyone in the family has memories of spending time at their home in Bar Mills, where the couple worked together in their large garden. They were soulmates, Stoddard said.
The Fannings sold berries and vegetables at a stand near their home, Hawk House Farm, and were passionate about living off the land. He was an amazing cook and was known to chit-chat with anyone who stopped by, Stoddard said. They stocked their freezer with meat from hunting and harvested lobsters, oysters and clams to serve visitors.
Fanning loved telling stories and was always happy to share his knowledge about gardening, fishing and hunting, his family said.
"You never left Uncle Mark's without getting a lesson and learning something new and interesting," Stoddard said.
Though he was best known for his connections to falconry, Fanning's interests went far beyond the sport, his friends and family say. He collected books and art, loved antiques and was extremely kindhearted.
"He's a man's man, but he's a gentleman in the sense that he's refined," said Jim Gwiazdzinski, who became friends with Fanning through falconry and drove up from Rhode Island to visit several times a year.
Fanning could talk about anything under the sun, Gwiazdzinski said, recalling a conversation they had last summer when Fanning encouraged him to reread Steinbeck's "East of Eden." But invariably, the conversation would come back to hawks and falcons.
"People say to live life to the fullest. He certainly did," Gwiazdzinski said. "He sucked the marrow out of life."