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Mike and Linda Neault display their matching Henry Golden Boy .22 magnum rifles during last week's Minnesota Deer Hunters Association banquet in Carlton. Mike was honored as Minnesota's 2010 Firearms Safety Instructor of the Year, but insisted he and wife, Linda, are a teaching team. To surprise her, he bought her a gun matching the one he was awarded. Phyllis Rousseau/Pine Journal

Blackhoof couple honored for making the world a safer place

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our neighbors Cloquet, 55720
Cloquet Minnesota 122 Avenue C 55720

Mike Neault knows it's his name on the plaque recognizing him as Minnesota's 2010 Firearms Safety Instructor of the Year.

But he thinks someone else's name should be on it, too. His wife's.

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"Linda deserves this award as much as I do," said Neault, 56, of Barnum. "She works just as hard or harder than I do."

Neault received the award, given by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, last Thursday night at the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association banquet at Carlton's Four Seasons Sports Complex. The community center was a sea of blaze orange, olive green and camouflage for the annual event. Parking flowed over into nearby lots and along Highway 210. Folks were lined up out the door, waiting to get in, get their raffle tickets and enjoy a good meal.

Inside, Mike and Linda Neault were seated front and center, guests of honor.

"They are truly a team," said Captain Mike Hammer, education and safety coordinator for the Minnesota DNR. "Unfortunately, we don't have a team award."

But Mike didn't let the red tape stop him from recognizing his wife and teaching partner. To surprise her, he purchased a gun - matching the Henry Golden Boy .22 magnum rifle Mike received along with his award - and presented it to Linda Thursday night.

He also persuaded Hammer to engrave both their names on the plaque they get to keep, although the official plaque bearing the names of each year's winner will display only Mike's name.

"I have to say, I got a special man," Linda said in an interview the next day. "I don't know many people that would do that."

Mike sang her praises during the award ceremony.

"I had several people come up to me after the banquet that told me I made them cry," he said. "She's special. I've got a keeper."

One of the most surprising things about Mike's selection for the award is the fact that the Neaults have only been teaching for six years.

Hammer referred to Mike as a "newcomer," noting that last year the DNR honored three people who have been teaching hunter education classes for 50 years.

But it's the quality of teaching that stands out.

"They just do really good, quality classes," said Scott Staples, one of two Carlton County conservation officers. "It shows when the kids and women come out of there."

Staples called them "outstanding citizens."

"They saw a need in the community, stepped up and built a quality program in the Barnum and Carlton County area," Hammer said. "And when they couldn't find a range, they came up with a unique solution: Mike built one on their own property."

No easy job. Mike figures he put 400 hours into building the backstop alone, which is 12 feet high, 36 feet wide and 10 feet thick with 6 inches of reinforced concrete inside.

"We've actually shot cannonballs at it," said Mike, describing the range itself as U-shaped, with the target set at the back of the U. "They were 1 ½ pound cannon balls and it stopped them."

Time for class

Mike and Linda said they

decided to try and teach after attending a previous MDHA banquet seven years ago, when they heard volunteer teachers were in short supply. Both took the required classes, observed a Cloquet class and then took over the Barnum class.

Now Mike and Linda teach at least three classes a year: one for women (16 and older) in the summer and mixed male/female classes (ages 11 and older) in the fall and spring. Each class usually lasts a week, from Monday through Saturday. The required

12 ½ hours of classroom training takes place in the evenings Monday through Friday, usually in the basement of the Sandy Lake Baptist Church a mile from their rural home in Blackhoof Township. In addition to gun-related education, they also cover basic survival and very basic first aid tips during the week of lessons.

Saturday is field day, when the students go on a field walk during which they review and practice safety-related issues that a person would deal with on an actual deer hunt, for example.

"When to shoot and when not to shoot at the deer stand, or what carry to use," said Mike, explaining that there are six different "carries," or ways to hold a firearm. "Depending on what you're doing, one carry would be safer than another."

Grouse hunters also have to worry about "zones of fire."

Picture former Vice President Dick Cheney's hunting accident.

"When a row of people hunt side by side, you block off your own area," Mike explained. "That way you don't sweep over and shoot your friend."

Mike and Linda usually invite a speaker to come to the class for field day - past guests have included Staples and Sheriff Kelly Lake, among others - plus regular guest Ron Parks, who does a muzzle loading demonstration dressed in buckskin.

The contact doesn't always end when the students pass the class either. Many send notes and/or photos - all dutifully added to classroom scrapbooks by the Neaults - of their successes.

"They've sent pictures of game - deer, bear, pheasant - and even pictures of targets, because sometimes parents just want them to know gun safety," Linda said.

Whatever the reason, students have testified that the Neaults manage to make their classes both fun and serious.

"We like working with the kids," Linda said. "Just the fact that if you can make them safe hunters and they can go out and hunt and not have an accident ... The purpose of the program is very important."

Toward that end, they created a pledge they use for each class.

Mike recited the pledge: "I, [insert name here], will act responsibly and act like an adult whenever I'm in the presence of a firearm."

Short and to the point.

"They pledge that to their instructors, their parents and their fellow hunters," he added.

Now the pledge is being used in classes around the state, thanks to Hammer, who included the text for the pledge in one of his newsletters.

The DNR captain said the way the couple goes above and beyond what is required of teachers is another reason Mike was selected for the award.

"They're the kind of people ... if someone doesn't have someone to go hunt with, they'll be mentors," Hammer said. "They had a student who didn't have family or friends who hunted, so Mike talked to the mother and got her permission to purchase a shotgun. He worked with the boy target shooting after school until he was proficient. Then the youngster stayed overnight the day before, got up early for breakfast and

successfully shot his first deer

that day."

Actually, Linda noted, the boys shot two deer that day. Now he's planning to go out again this year.

Pass it on

When they met in Duluth more than two decades ago, neither could have predicted the awards ceremony that took place last Thursday. Although she enjoyed fishing, Linda didn't even hunt before she met Mike.

"When we were dating, he took me with him [deer hunting]," Linda said. "I sat in the stand with him for a few years before I hunted myself. I learned to love the outdoors."

Mike smiled and revealed that his wife's nickname is "One-shot."

"She can outshoot me now," he said.

Both are avid hunters now, and say they have pretty good luck on their 160-acre hunting property.

It seems their hunting success could also be credited to

knowledge.

"We practice [target shooting] and we know our property, where the deer travel through," Mike said. "I do a lot of reading too, and watch a lot of shows on hunting."

Mike started hunting when he was 12, when his mother rented a 30-30 gun, showed him how to load it and pointed to the woods.

"She told me, 'If you see anything brown out there, shoot it,'" he said, and chuckled. "I wonder what she would have done if I'd brought home a farmer."

While acknowledging that his mother - who was raising the kids alone - did the best she could, he'd rather kids start with a firearm safety class.

"The thing that satisfies me is feeling there are several hundred safer hunters in Minnesota," Mike said.

Keep in mind, the Neaults don't make any money teaching the firearm education classes. Mike works at Sappi in Cloquet and Linda works at State Farm Insurance in Duluth, training agents and team members.

They do, however, get lots of support from the community, businesses and various sportsmen associations. Last summer, for example, Mike got a grant to pay for the women's firearm safety class, so there was no cost to enroll. Former students made a gun rack for the range. Birchwood Casey donated its Shoot•N•C black targets, which display in neon green exactly where a bullet hits the target.

"We get just awesome support from the community, the businesses and the parents," Linda said. "They make it fun for us too, and easier."

That goes both ways.

The Duluth News Tribune's Sam Cook contributed to this story.

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