Hillsboro Hounds’ huntsman of 42 years may have passed the horn on, but his legacy has helped define the hunt’s unique charm and success. Photos by Josh Walker.
By Josh Walker
Four fields followed the Hillsboro Hounds pack the morning of March 26, 2022. It was a large turnout viewable from various vantage points as they poured across the middle Tennessee hills and ridges and through the trails of the Hounds Ear fixture in Cornersville, owned by Lisa and John Campbell. A chilly wind had been gusting all night. Scenting seemed as if it would be a challenge, but the sun was warm and so was the company.
Before setting out, members and guests from out of town had converged at the fixture with a distinct energy. Some knew a why while others simply felt it.
Despite the wind, huntsman Johnnie Gray’s Crossbred hounds found some coyote lines and gave good chase. Just before noon, Michael Campbell, who frequently road-whips in his white Prius, a vehicle known to Hillsboro staff as the “white rabbit,” heard Johnnie’s call to pack up the hounds and head back to the trailers. Just as the radio’s frequency buzzed closed, a coyote who looked like it had had enough ambled across the highway a few dozen meters past the white rabbit’s hood. It stared audaciously back through the windshield until it disappeared back into the brush.
Back at the trailers, the morning’s buzz had only grown. It seemed like everyone had a similar story to tell; something to laugh about or celebrate. Johnnie called the field to gather around. As the conversations settled, he announced without superfluous pomp or circumstance, but with plenty of heart, that he was honored after 42 years of service as the huntsman of Hillsboro Hounds to be passing the horn to his wife, Leilani Gray, who would officially become the club’s fourth huntsman (and third Gray) since its founding in 1932.
For the staff, it wasn’t a surprise. Johnnie had approached them months ago, and he and Leilani had been talking about it for several years. “I spoke to each of them individually at the start of the season,” said one of the joint Masters. “Leilani said she wanted it to be about honoring Johnnie. Johnnie said he wanted it to be about honoring Leilani.”
Hillsboro has four joint Masters: Eleanor Menefee Warriner, Orrin Ingram, Hill McAlister, and Michael Lindley. Each exudes a clever sense of humor and an undying passion for the sport, the hounds, land conservation and the people they call family: their members and neighbors. In each’s own understated way, they requested to speak about that morning’s milestone in a single voice.
“It isn’t about us.” the joint Masters agreed. In all their years in service to the foxhunting community, they said, it is very rare to see one huntsman pass the horn to his own successor.
As Johnnie handed the horn to Leilani, the energy that had been buzzing all morning finally poured out of the field in the form of song: “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” While it felt momentous to hear the entire field singing, Johnnie and Leilani maintained the same humble confidence in that moment that they had exhibited in the field with each other, the staff and the hounds that morning.
“Their camaraderie spills over into the camaraderie of the hunt,” a joint Master said. “It’s often hard, tireless, stressful work, but it’s done with love and laughter.”
Clutching the horn in each other’s hands, cameras clicked and the singing began to tumble into cheers and clapping. “I’ll still be around,” Johnnie shouted. “Someone’s got to keep these Masters in line,” he jabbed.
I’m Supporting You
Back at their Hooker Kennels, named for Henry Hooker (1933 – 2017) who had served as a Master for Hillsboro since 1977, Johnnie said about his decision to formally retire, “It was just natural.”
The Kennel office was wrapped with championship ribbons and trophies won by hounds past and present. Johnnie glanced up at them as he sat on the edge of a couch and said he still plans to whip for Leilani next season while he focuses more on the hounds.
Several seasons ago, he needed rotator cuff surgery to repair a shoulder injury, which would require six months off. “So, I told Leilani, ‘Why don’t you hunt the hounds on Wednesdays and I’ll hunt them on Saturdays.’ So, it was just totally natural for her to take over. She knows the country and she’s already been hunting the hounds for a few seasons.”
Leilani appeared in the office doorway and then came and sat in a chair across from Johnnie. “We tag team all the time,” she joined the conversation as if she’d been in it all along. “While he’s whipping in next season, we’re bringing someone new in and showing them the ropes. It would be easier and only fair to learn from one huntsman.”
She had a point, but it seemed that morning as if, at least to the hounds’ ears, Johnnie and Leilani worked as one. When the pack split, there was no friction in Johnnie’s tone. There was urgency when necessary, sure, but someone always seemed to be on his or her way to the right place at the right time.
“This country can be tricky,” Leilani said. While the trails are impeccably kept, veins of steep, tree-lined ridges run through the territory and can limit long distance visibility. “If hounds are on one side of a ridge and I can’t get over to them, he’s usually already over there waiting for them.”
Johnnie said that in the instances when he gets left behind, the hounds naturally follow Leilani. “I just start whipping until everyone catches up and then we switch back over,” he explained. “The hounds are really good about it. They’ve all adapted to it.”
“It’s almost like shorthand on the radios,” a joint Master added about the pair’s connection in the field. ‘Johnnie, are you above me?’ ‘I’m right behind you,’ he demonstrated: “’I’m supporting you. I am on your team.’”
As Leilani transitions to hunting the hounds full-time, “It will be different but the same,” she said. “The main pressure I feel is keeping the same consistency that he’s produced after all these years. I’m lucky enough to have started with the hunt in ‘06, so I think I have the experience to do that.”
Tuning Up the Pack
Leilani hadn’t sat in a saddle until she was 10 years old. Her father served in the military and she grew up in Hawaii. She discovered riding at summer camp. “There was tennis, swimming, biking and riding horses.” She remembers the horses above all. “I came home that summer, and I told my parents, ‘I’m going to need to keep doing this.’ I was lucky that they let me.”
She showed hunters and show jumped for years but knew little about fox hunting until she moved from Chicago to Tennessee at the age of 26 and bought a piece of property on the edge of hunt country. “I fell in love with the lifestyle. It just suited me,” she remembered. In 2006, she took a job at Hillsboro.
During the years following, “they spent 24 hours a day tuning up that pack of hounds,” a joint Master remembered. “That’s when we started winning at the hound shows.”
Hillsboro Graphic’14 won Grand Champion at the Carolinas Hound Show in Camden, South Carolina, in 2015. Two weeks later at the Virginia Foxhound Show in Leesburg, Hillsboro Siskin’14 was crowned Grand Champion. In 2016, the MFHA awarded Johnnie the prestigious Milne Award, which is periodically given by a jury of peers to a huntsman of who has made outstanding contributions to the sport. In 2017, judges named Hillsboro Godfrey’16 Grand Champion at the Southern Hound Show in Monticello, Florida. In 2018, Hillsboro Walnut’17 was named Grand Champion at the Virginia Foxhound Show while Hillsboro Starlight’17 was Reserve. The same year Walnut swept up more awards at the Southern Hound Show. The list goes on. Do a basic search of almost any hound with the Hillsboro prefix and scrolls of awards and accolades will appear.
“Someone once said, ‘You can create the best hounds in the world, but if you don’t create the environment for them to succeed, you don’t have anything,’” said Tony Leahy, joint Master of Massback and Fox River Valley Hounds in Elizabeth, Illinois, and former MFHA president. “We’ve bred hounds together and traded back and forth for more than 30 seasons. You always get the straight story with Johnnie. He’s very honest in how he assesses hounds.”
One of Johnnie’s favorite memories from the field happened about 20 years ago and happens to be the same as Leahy’s. “Tony came down and we had a joint meet,” he remembered. “We ran for over two hours around the entire hunt country.”
“It was one of the best joint meets I’ve ever experienced,” Leahy said. “It was the best melding of hounds I’ve ever been in. I think each one brought something to the table. At the end of the day, we saw the coyote coming across a dirt road and into a hayfield and fifteen hounds still coming, still trying. So, we stopped them there, but Johnnie was so proud that eight of them were his and seven were mine. So, he wins. He’s always been up there as one of the very best professional huntsmen in the United States.”
With more than 45 couple at Hooker Kennels now, “we have probably fifty percent English now, but I like the crossbreds because you get the best of both worlds,” Johnnie explained. “You get the English qualities with the biddability and stamina, and then the American hounds have the noses and mouths. We’ve introduced some Penn-Marydel bloodlines, too, and are excited about them.”
It’s Always Been in His Blood
Throughout his last official hunt as huntsman, he showed his hounds the same humble confidence he shows everyone else, reserving sharp urgency or assertiveness only for moments that demanded it. The only voices echoing through the columns of tree trunks that morning were those of the hounds and Johnnie’s horn.
Originally from the north of England, he’s been in the United States for more than 45 years. He calls himself an English hillbilly. While this season marks the end of his 50th as a foxhunting professional, his father had done it for 30 years before him. Two of his brothers led packs as well, the oldest, Bob, retiring as huntsman at Hillsboro in 1980 when Johnnie took over. Before Bob, it was Felix Peach who led the pack from the mid-1930s until the mid-1970s.
A true thrill seeker, Johnnie also raced point-to-point as a steeplechase jockey for several seasons until he was 45 years old. “I rode a lot of battles,” he said with a laugh. “But I also had a lot of fun. I loved it.” That is, until one of those battles almost ended his career with horses entirely. “I had a bad accident in Kentucky,” he remembered. “A horse clipped my horse’s heels during a race. When mine went down, so did I. Then one stepped on my face.” Surgeons had to implant plates under his eyes and on either side of his nose. “That’s when I made some promises to God that I would give it up and stick to foxhunting.” He said he’s never regretted that decision.
After his final outing as huntsman, Lisa and John Campbell hosted the day’s tea along with their children and their families. When Johnnie arrived from the kennels, he was ushered to a white rocking chair in the lawn. On its back, hand painted letters read, “Gone to Ground.” The front read: “1980 – 2022 #1 Huntsman ever – Hillsboro Hounds.”
He promptly insisted that he wasn’t going anywhere and doubled down that someone had to stick around to watch over the masters.
“Almost all of his career has been with one pack in one place,” Leahy said. “His loyalty and his commitment to his craft and their country is unmatched. When you go to Hillsboro and you see that kennel, those hounds, and that environment, you know it’s one hell of an operation. It’s really cool that he’s able to step down as huntsman but stay involved in what he’s built for Hillsboro and sport in general.”