In 1982, Jennings decided to leave the law practice to pursue a life less ordinary - in his case, opening a fly-fishing shop in Calgary, where he had lived as a teenager in the 1960s. In the space of just a few minutes, Neil Jennings rattles off quotes from Oliver Wendell Holmes and George Carlin with equal respect. It makes sense. Holmes ("Most people die with the music still in them.") and Carlin ("It's just STUFF!") were addressing the same, age-old relationship between happiness and materialism.
"It had been frenetic for years," says Jennings of his stint practicing law in the Alberta oil patch, where he worked as a corporate secretary for an integrated oil company through the late 1970s. "It was getting to the point where my children were saying to their mother, 'Mom, who's dad?' as opposed to, 'Mom, where's dad?' And I thought, 'Well, you've done enough of this.' And that's when I bailed out and said, you know, life is too short. Money is not a sufficient object for me to continue to do this and put a lot of things that I prefer at risk."
Such wisdom is hard-earned, and Jennings had his share of aimless wandering. Born in Freeport, Texas, he spent much of his childhood at the whim of the oil industry. His father, an oil well drilling contractor, moved the family to follow his work -- Texas, Arkansas, Venezuela, New Mexico -- before settling in southern Alberta in 1960. After high school, Jennings returned to the United States for college at Washington State University and a graduate certificate in teaching before arriving at UBC in 1969. "I didn't really have any particular field interest in law. The whole legal thing had an appeal to me in terms of its logic and its balancing interests. So I didn't go to law school with any preconceived notions of any particular law that I wanted to practice." Echoing many law school graduates who have wound up working outside the practice, Jennings quips: "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
When he recalls the charged political climate in the United States at the turn of the 1970s, Jennings still believes it was a good idea. The Vietnam War was in full swing, and for Jennings, "the United States was a very uncomfortable place to be at that time. I didn't apply to any U.S. schools. I applied only to UBC, just because it seemed the saner place to be." With his first wife and two young children in tow, Jennings committed himself to his academic work, splitting his time between his family and his studies. After graduation, he articled with Fulton, Cumming, and Richards, and spent much of his time studying criminal defence work with Jack Cram.
In 1973, things took a tragic turn when Jennings' brother was badly injured in a car accident in Calgary. While visiting him in the hospital, Jennings met up with friends from UBC Law who practiced in Alberta, and was quickly offered work. With his second wife, Linda (a legal secretary he had met while articling), Jennings settled in Calgary permanently, practicing criminal law before moving into the oil patch.
Breaking from law entirely in 1982 marked a sea-change in Jennings' life. He devoted himself to the things that made him happy - his family, fly fishing, writing, photography, and the outdoors. With two more children by his second marriage, he explored the nooks and crannies of wild Alberta and southeastern British Columbia, and led his customers on fly-fishing trips round the world - Belize, Florida, Christmas Island, Mexico, South America - to chase bonefish, tarpon, barracuda, sharks, and the like. "It was a big part of our fly fishing business for a while, because the people who would take those trips with us were often middle to top executives in the oil patch, in the legal profession, and in the medical profession in Calgary. So we built up sort of a large coterie of people who could afford and enjoy being a peripatetic angler and traveling to lots of places to go fishing."
More than an escape from the demands of corporate life, Jennings found in nature a means of sharing with his family (who often accompanied him on his local excursions) as well as peace of mind. "I've seen a hell of a lot of people who are far too uptight, and I don't get very uptight very often," he says.
"You only go around once and it ain't worth getting uptight about. There are some things that are worth more than money as long as you've got the good sense to sort out the wheat from the chaff and then make a considered decision: 'Yeah, ok, I'm going to do without that because I've got this, and I think this is a better prize.'"
His most recent career, then, isn't much of a stretch. Jennings had limited time for writing and photography while he was running the shop, penning occasional articles for fishing and outdoors magazines. But selling his store in 2003 gave him the time to publish a series of books on wildflowers (Central Beauty, Coastal Beauty, Alpine Beauty, Prairie Beauty, and Uncommon Beauty), a guide to the natural wonders of Southern Alberta (In Plain Sight), and, of course, a title devoted to fly fishing called Behind the Counter. "The bug really came while I was running the fly fishing shop, "he says, "because I had always wandered around with a camera and had taken lots of photographs. I like the intricacy of wildflowers; I find them hugely appealing and interesting. It sort of grew from my interest in photography and my curiosity about what these things were that started the ball rolling toward doing the sort of 'guide book' stuff." The new career has allowed Jennings to enjoy more outdoors activities with his wife, whom he refers to as "my editor of first instance, and one of the best flower spotters I've ever known."
Wary of becoming too much of a hermit, he recently took a part-time job at Mountain Equipment Co-op, educating members on the finer points of camping, snow sports, and water sports. "My kids and my money have, for many years, gone to MEC, so when I was casting about for something to do I thought well, that would probably be a really fun place to work. And it's lovely. I've never had a job that is as much fun." The flexibility he's manufactured through his writing, photography, and MEC work have allowed Jennings a freedom unobtainable by the average desk jockey. He continues to enjoy regular fishing and camping trips with his wife of 36 years, and his four children, who now range in age from 32 to 40 years old, and holds no regrets about leaving the legal profession so many years ago.