LIMA — Something about ducks always captivated Herb Sherrell.
Searching for exactly what it is that has enthralled him since his childhood in Tennessee, Sherrell says he admires the ease with which they go from water to land and back again, the way the water rolls off them, the way they turn and tuck their heads in their feathers to rest.
“They’re so beautiful,” he says. “They’re absolutely beautiful.”
Sherrell, a self-taught wood carver, has been capturing that beauty in wood — preferably Douglas fir — since the early 1980s, and he’s gotten pretty good at it. His carved ducks, which he sells at craft shows, can be found in homes, businesses and offices from Lima to Japan. Years ago, he says, a radio announcer in Tennessee christened him the “Duckman,” and the name stuck.
Sherrell was born in October 1939 in Pulaski, Tennessee, the youngest of the seven children of John and Louise Sherrell. Even as a child, Sherrell recalls, he was fascinated with wildlife and was something of a fledgling wood worker, collecting Popsicle sticks and weaving them together. In a Feb. 4, 2002, interview with The Lima News, Sherrell joked that he was “a little weird back then.”
At the age of 16, Sherrell left Tennessee for Chicago, eventually landing a job with Standard Oil as a pipeline worker. He served a stint in the Army from 1959 to 1965. In 1966, he married Sondra Cornelia Smith and the couple have three daughters.
In 1968, because of cutbacks on the pipeline, Sherrell says he was told he could either “lose his job or come here to the refinery.” He came to Lima and worked at the refinery until his retirement 27 years later.
He also revived his childhood interest in working with wood.
“A fellow woodcarver and neighbor gave him a woodcarving book that Sherrell said took his work to a whole new level,” the News wrote in 2002. “This is also when he began concentrating on ducks, before carving mostly small horses and frogs.”
The neighbor and fellow woodcarver, Charlie Dibble, served as a mentor and teacher. Sherrell says that, whenever he finished a piece, he would show it to Dibble to get his opinion.
“You’ve got to have someone to tell you if it’s OK,” he says.
Dibble, who made clocks from various types of wood, died in 2010.
Working with Dibble, Sherrell told the News, took his work to a new level.
“I would go to shows and look at how other people did certain things, but basically I was self-taught.”
A lot of that learning occurred in his garage workshop where he spent long hours engrossed in his carving, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning when his wife would call him in. It was after one of those marathon sessions in the late 1980s, Sherrell says, that he suffered the first of two heart attacks.
“As soon as he was feeling better, though, he was back in his garage,” the News noted.
Sherrell also lost the sight in his left eye to glaucoma, a development he contends would have been worse if it were his right eye.
“It’s my left eye, I’m right handed,” he explains. “All my work I shifted to the right.” Besides, he adds, the limit on his vision has seemingly enhanced his sense of touch, a useful attribute for someone working with the texture of a piece of wood.
Sherrell told an interviewer in 1995 that he sold his first piece — “a little stupid-looking duck” — at a craft show in Cincinnati. “I sold it for $8 because my friends encouraged me. I was shaking when I sold it,” he said.
That was a lot of ducks ago. Although he says he doesn’t know how many ducks he’s carved in the last 35 years, Sherrell guesses it’s in “the hundreds.” In the 2002 article, the News wrote that by then Sherrell had “hand carved at least 500 wooden ducks.” The ducks, the newspaper added, “come in all shapes and sizes” with many designed to be used as planters. Each is unique.
Perhaps more impressive than the volume of ducks Sherrell has carved is the list of people who own them, among them former President Jimmy Carter and his vice-President Al Gore Jr. Gore’s father, Al Gore Sr., a former U.S. Senator and U.S. Representative from Tennessee also has a duck. The late NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. had one as does college basketball commentator Dick Vitale.
On Jan. 12, 1994, Al Gore Jr. wrote Sherrell, thanking him for the duck. “You are a man of exceptional artistic talents, and I appreciate your generosity in giving us one of your beautiful creations,” Gore wrote.
Sherrell’s ducks grace homes and offices in Germany, England, Bulgaria and in Lima’s sister city, Harima-Cho, Japan, and from coast-to-coast in the United States as well as in many Lima homes and businesses. He also has donated numerous ducks to charitable organizations.
Days have been designated in his honor in his native Giles County, Tennessee, as well as in Lima, but perhaps the ultimate honor came in 2005 when, as the News wrote, the Duckman became the Duckmaster at the famed Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. In a daily tradition dating back a century, live ducks are led down a red carpet from their quarters in the Peabody to a lobby fountain for a day of frolicking.
In Tennessee for a family reunion, Sherrell was lured to the Peabody, where he had sold carved ducks in the early 1990s, in a ruse set up by family members. The regular hotel duckmaster, during his speech, called Sherrell up and told him he would lead the ducks that day.
“I’m nervous at that point,” Sherrell told the News. “We go up to the penthouse and he gives me the hand signals to do with the ducks, kind of a crash course. They fall into a row and march down and I’m right behind them.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.