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By STEPHEN LEGA, Landmark News Service
Editor’s note: This article originally ran in The Lebanon Enterprise, a sister paper to The Spencer Magnet. The Turtleman Ernie Brown Jr., a native of Marion County, is scheduled to appear at a fundraiser at the Spencer County Fairgrounds on April 21. Tickets are $10, and all proceeds will benefit the Mikie Monroe family.
Ernie Brown Jr. has been the Turtleman around Marion County for decades, but that means something a little different today than it did just a few years ago.
Brown has made a living catching turtles (and other critters), and those skills, along with his personality, have now turned him into a television star.
His show, “Call of the Wildman,” started airing on Animal Plant last year, which has led to Brown meeting celebrities and becoming famous in his own right. He’s made two appearances on The Tonight Show. He gets fan mail, and people even want his autograph.
“That’s amazing to me,” Brown said.
And his fans are more than willing to travel to Lebanon in hopes of finding him.
When the Turtleman sat down for an interview about being named the Marion County Chamber of Commerce’s 2012 Outstanding Citizen, a pair of his fans came into the newspaper office after spotting his truck outside.
John Atkins had the day off, and he knew his wife wanted to meet Brown, so they drove from Portland, Tenn., in hopes of finding him.
Judi Atkins said she and Brown share an affinity for Native American culture, and she gave him a few sun catchers that she made. The Turtleman visited with the Atkins couple for about 10 minutes as drivers passing by shouted to Brown or stopped, hoping for a brief word.
Judi explained the Turtleman’s appeal.
“It’s his soul,” she said. “You can feel it with him.”
“And his warm-heartedness,” John added.
Brown said he started getting visitors from all over the country even before his television show was on the air.
“They started coming about two years ago,” Brown said.
His fame initially spread through Internet videos, and he said he’s met fans who traveled to Marion County from California, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas, and West Virginia.
The Turtleman was even a big draw at this year’s Carl Casper Auto Show, where he estimated he met around 60,000 people. Brown said he just wants to make people feel good, and he has tried to put his newfound fame to good use. After the auto show, he went to Kosair Children’s Hospital to visit with a girl who said her wish was to meet the Turtleman.
“That was a big honor there,” Brown said. “I wasn’t the Turtleman that day. I felt I was delivering a message for Jesus.”
Neal James, his long-time friend and banjo player, came with Brown to Kosair. He played some songs, and Brown tried to get the girl to dance. She initially said she was too weak, but with a little coaxing, she danced for an entire song with the Turtleman.
“The nurses were crying and the doctors were shocked,” Brown said.
He added that he just wants to help people smile and laugh.
“I’m looking for the spirit of people,” he said.
Brown and his Turtle Crew also visited West Liberty in the aftermath of the recent tornados.
“It’s the worstest, awfulest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It looked like an atom bomb went off and just blew everything up.”
When he arrived, he said children came right over to him and he took pictures with all of them. Brown also helped deliver books that had been donated by a school in West Virginia for the West Liberty elementary school that had been destroyed. During the four days they were in West Liberty, they also helped raise money to help tornado victims.
Again, the Turtleman said he just felt honored to help.
“They were giving me presents as I was leaving, and I was trying to give presents back to ‘em,” Brown said.
West Liberty may be featured in a future episode of “Call of the Wildman,” Brown said. Filming has resumed, and the next new episodes are scheduled to air in June, he said.
The Turtleman’s life has changed in other ways, too. He’s met Eddie Murphy, Justin Bieber and countless NASCAR drivers, and this past Christmas he even drew crowds of children away from Santa when he went shopping in a store in Lexington and at the local Wal-Mart.
Brown recalled that Santa even got out of his chair to see what was happening.
“I had to stand in line to get people back in his line,” the Turtleman said. “I felt like a superhero.”
One change that he apologizes for is his availability. Now, if schools or groups want him to give a presentation, they have to contact his agent since he is under contract with Animal Planet.
“It’s just the rules of the trade,” he said.
Brown appreciates the many fan letters he’s received. He said he tries to respond to as many as he can each day, whether that’s 50 or 100 letters, depending on how much time he has.
He’s received several gifts from fans as well, including dog food (for Lolly), hats, a jacket, knives, necklaces and shirts. A few weeks ago, Tony Abbott, a chainsaw wood-carving artist from LaGrange, traveled to Lebanon to personally deliver a sculpture he made of Brown.
In spite of everything that has happened, Brown insists that he isn’t going to change, calling himself the poorest famous guy around.
“I’m just going to give ‘em all my happiness I can give,” he said.