How did I meet someone like that?
It all began in 1968 during my sophomore year at the University of Wyoming. I was sitting with my friend Al Hendricks in the cafeteria. “Al, who’s that old guy?”
“He’s some old-time mountaineer. His name is Paul something.”
“What’s he doing eating at our cafeteria?”
Al said, “I don’t know. What don’t you ask him?”
I wish I had.
It turns out that since starting NOLS three years earlier he had been doing a lot of public speaking, so at the age of sixty he decided to take a course in public speaking and live on campus to improve his presentation skills.
When, a few months later, he gave a presentation about NOLS, you can be sure I was there. My memory of the event is vague, with one exception. When a gentleman asked the question, “When I think of the outdoors, I think of being exhausted, bitten by bugs, blisters on my feet, and being uncomfortable. How is NOLS different?”
Paul’s response was classic. He said, “We have a saying at NOLS. If you aren’t comfortable, you’re not doing it right.” at that moment I knew I wanted to learn how to do it right.
Two years later I took my first NOLS course. But it wasn’t until 1977, after he left NOLS and was helping start the Wilderness Education Association, that I really got to know Paul. I’d invited him to Saranac Lake and ran him ragged giving presentations at Paul Smith’s College, NCCC, the NYSDEC, and various civic organizations. Ultimately, he played a major role in convincing NCCC administrators to start the Wilderness Recreation Leadership Program. We soon became fast friends and visited each other many times between his home in Sebago Lake, Maine, and Saranac Lake between then and his death in 1999.
Through Paul I met numerous pioneers in the outdoor field, for example Bjorn Kjellstrom. Bjorn was a Swedish ski orienteering champion, and he and his brother invented the modern compass. They founded the Silva compass company and sold more than 25 million compasses. He was frustrated, however, that despite Americans being the biggest customers of Silva compasses, orienteering had never caught on in the United States. To address the problem, he offered scholarships to the Wilderness Education Association for several years for outdoor leaders to participate in the O-Ringen, a five-day event in Sweden where more than 10,000 orienteers participate. While the scholarship winners all brought back wonderful skills and tried to kick-start orienteering events the sport continues to be a very small niche activity compared to Scandinavia.
I got to know additional luminaries as well. I spent a memorable evening with Paul, Josh Miner founder of American Outward Bound, Frank Lupton co-founder of the Wilderness Education Association, wilderness medicine expert Doc Forgey, and a bottle of Jameson whiskey in a tiny old dormitory room on the campus of Western Illinois University. I was intoxicated on stories about the creation of the first American Outward Bound School and other outdoor adventures. The Jameson wasn’t bad either.
One fall without warning Paul, with his wife Ginnie, drove all the way from Maine to visit Saranac Lake staying at a local motel. He called and asked me to join them for breakfast. He hadn’t given me any warning that he was coming so I was a bit surprised but as always, eager to meet with him. We were eating our breakfast and chatting about mundane things when suddenly he brought up a student, he had problems with years ago. I didn’t know where he was going until he finally said, “Sort of like the photographer student you had.”
I said, “How do you know about him?” Upon which he shared a three-page handwritten letter from the student telling Paul what a terrible outdoor leader and teacher I was.
I said, “Paul that student created so many problems you wouldn’t believe it. He violated at least two course rules and just didn’t have what it takes to be a good outdoor leader.”
I went on to give him the details and Paul said, “I figured as such, but I had to hear your side of the story.”
He had driven six hours one way to hear my side of the story. Paul was more than willing to listen to the young man’s side of the story, but he was going to hear both sides before he provided an opinion.
When in 2015 a group of NOLS alum decided to honor Paul by having a bronze sculpture created I said, “Count me in.” I sent a small donation and hoped to attend the unveiling ceremony in 2016. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it.
When I stopped in Lander a couple of weeks ago and had Phyliss take my photo next to the statue, I thought back to all the great times I spent with Paul and how much I learned from him.
It seemed only appropriate that I was looking at a larger-than-life statue ‒ because so was Paul.